1 The road to Smith: how the Geological Society came to possess English geology

Simon J. Knell

Is it possible, in the final analysis, for one human being to achieve a perfect understanding of another? We can invest enormous time and energy in serious efforts to know another person, but in the end, how close can we come to that person’s essence? We convince ourselves that we know the other person well, but do we really know anything important about anyone?

(Haruki Murakami. 2003. The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, Vintage, London, p. 24).[1]

Learned societies are both concrete and chameleon. They are made material in their buildings, reports, collections and other objects, but the meanings of these things are at the command of an ever-changing cast of actors. As historians we add to a sense of tangibility by converting this intangible element into published sketches and portraits; we turn the ambivalent and ephemeral into a series of plausible and persistent narratives. By such means a learned society acquires far greater material form than it has any right to claim. Indeed, the actuality of a society comes to us as if the subject of an exhibition of material objects. In the case of the Geological Society of London, these objects might include some of the science’s greatest heroes: William Smith (1769-1839), Roderick Murchison (1792-1871), Adam Sedgwick (1785-1873), Charles Lyell (1797-1875) and William Buckland (1784-1856). In an arrangement of individual portraits of this kind lies much of the image of the Society we know today. Of course, the political manipulation of images such as these is an important role for a society such as this and long has it been so. But behind its carefully curated image lies a Society which is and was culturally fluid, adapting to the changing social, political and intellectual worlds of which it is a part. 

Science and its learned societies are socialised worlds. In order to operate, they deploy scientific and social values and processes. The breathtaking intellectual transformation of geology in the early nineteenth century was paralleled, in ways now largely invisible to us, by equally radical shifts in how the science was socialised. This paper considers the relationship between these two aspects of the science and does so by considering a very familiar story – that of Smith’s geology. It is a story I intend to make more central to understanding the development of geology in Britain in the early nineteenth century by revealing its hidden nuances. I shall do so in four ‘Acts’. The first considers the Society’s modern use of William Smith as an iconic image in British science, tracing the origins of this use to 1831 and the presentation of the first Wollaston Medal. The second considers the period before the Society fell in love with Smith, when its own theoretical ideas and extraordinary dynamism proved a new and effective way to do geology in Britain. The third considers how Smith entered the Society’s thinking, suggesting that he did so at a time when the Society itself was entering a period of social turmoil. Perhaps he was the catalyst for this, for he demonstrated that the geological wilderness, which many Society men felt encircled them, was not really there. The final part demonstrates that in order to possess Smith and his ‘English geology’, history itself had to be rewritten. At that moment, however, there was a developing sense that a Society could not possess and control geology anyway. 

The opening quote, taken from Murakami’s acclaimed novel, offers a central theme for this essay for, above all else, this is an essay about not knowing but nevertheless believing. In the political turmoil of the Society’s early years, this indefinite aspect of life was hugely influential in shaping relationships and spawning a culture of social interaction which aided the science’s rapid advance. These aspects have also shaped the histories that have been written including those deployed by the Society to construct its present-day image. It is with these points I shall begin.


Histories of societies

In using William Smith as an avenue of approach to understand the making of the Society, I have to take into account the considerable attention he has received from historians. Indeed, according to the present incumbent, Hugh Torrens (2001, p. 62), every generation has had its Smith biographer: William Stephen Mitchell (1840-1892), Arthur George Davis (1892-1957), Leslie Reginald Cox (1897-1965) and Joan Mary Eyles (1907-1986), to name but a few. Each has felt it necessary to fight for Smith against detractors and romantics. In doing so, these historians differ little from many of Smith’s contemporary advocates who, in their different ways, fought battles for his recognition (most notably, John Farey (1766-1826), William Henry Fitton (1780-1861), Joseph Townsend (1739-1816), James Parkinson (1755-1824) and William Phillips (1773-1828)). Both historian and advocate have used a rich empiricism to defend their man. Some have also sought that Smithian Holy Grail, a document which proves Smith’s influence on those Continental geologists who seemed to possess an almost identical idea. This has not, however, simply been an argument about priority; it has also been variously modelled as a battle on behalf of the little man, and the practical and utilitarian, and an argument against the power of social and intellectual elites. 

Few historical figures have attracted such compassion and support. Smith, we might believe, is the patron saint and guardian of the true religion. ‘Any attempt to set him in his context is too readily misinterpreted as an iconoclastic attempt to topple him from his pedestal’, Rudwick (2005, p. 443) complained. If, then, an anti-Christ can be imagined, and it can be a society of individuals, then that society is the subject of this essay for, as Torrens (2001, p. 61) has put it, in the baldest of terms: 

the founding fathers of the Geological Society were unconvinced of the reality or utility of Smith’s discoveries. Its leaders at first did not believe he had uncovered anything of significance and then simply stole much of it.

From his own point of view, and that of his supporters, Smith was undoubtedly visible to the Society’s members, his proven ideas stolen by them for their own purposes, as Torrens has shown so well. I have also argued for the pervasiveness of Smith’s influence in nineteenth-century England (Knell 2000). However, the challenge in this present essay is to see things from the other side: to see Smith through the window of the Geological Society. Might events look a little different from this side of the glass? The Society was not born a den of thieves and it did not pursue its goals at any cost; social mores, so important in the interactions which characterise a new society, would, we might imagine, have prevented this. Indeed, might it be true, at least from the Society’s perspective, that Smith was a relatively invisible figure or of no great significance, and the victim of no crime? And might our answer change depending on the period of which we ask the question? The Society, locked in a reflexive relationship with the world around it, was bound to change. In doing so, the meanings of people, ideas and objects also seemed to change. It was these changing perceptions, I shall demonstrate, which changed the way the science was socialised and in turn affected the way the science progressed.[2] By these means the Society came to perceive Smith as the embodiment of English geology in a way it had not done previously. By these means, too, once innocent actions then appeared felonious.

Historians sometimes forget that questions are often asked in worlds far removed from those in which they are answered. These are worlds divided not so much by geographical distance as by time and culture. Change meant that people saw differently and found different things to see. In the emergent geological world discussed in this essay, no individual or society controlled the development of the field; thus it is wrong to believe that someone like Smith really needed the Geological Society to be considered, or legitimised as, a ‘geologist’. Equally, there is no reason to believe that the early Geological Society saw Smith as particularly relevant to its cause; after all it wished to be an extraordinarily exclusive, private, gentlemen’s club, and it imagined geology as something different from that narrow and practical field which it believed occupied Smith. 

In 1807, both parties possessed preconceived and incompatible ideas of what geology was or was to be. In this unfettered world, our Society geologists adopted goals but no sooner had they begun along a path to achieve them, than the path itself was affected by new information, theoretical ideas and changing social configurations. The science of English geology did not emerge from a simple narrative of discovery but through a succession of unscripted interactions which gave it unpredictability. Smith appears in a number of these interactions, sometimes in person but at other times only in essence. In the end, the Society arrived at Smith, but in doing so its leading commentators were more than a little surprised. When they had looked into the future, in the chill of that November evening when the Society was born, they had never believed that the path they were to follow would lead to this humble surveyor.

If the world I have described seems rather more indefinite and chaotic than our historical imagination permits and a subject hard to contain within an easy narrative, let me add that our attempts to unravel it are further confounded by the inadequacy of our actors’ understandings of each other. A geological society is only vaguely a unified entity; it is rather more an assemblage of disparate and variably political individuals. In the correspondence of George Greenough (1778-1855), the Society’s first President, for example, it is clear that he never had a complete knowledge of his correspondents or they of him. By all accounts, he frequently missed or avoided meetings; like us all, he doubtless wished to know certain individuals in certain ways. Where he did have close relationships, though still largely conducted at a distance, such as with William Conybeare (1787-1857), the haze of formality, respect and jest concealed from each man the kinds of thoughts which turned them from the closest of friends into something akin to petulant lovers. The politics of social relationships, so easily reconfigured by rumour and gossip, particularly as a result of competing ambitions, enhances this sense that each individual operated within a world affected by myth and belief. 

Like most early geologists, Greenough was emotionally affected by disputes and misunderstandings of this kind. Few of these new geologists avoided them and none fully understood them; indeed, there was no single understanding to be had. For instance, in the eyes of one of the Society’s curators, Thomas Webster (1772-1844), Greenough came to embody all that was wrong in the science. In contrast, he believed that the Secretary at the time, Fitton, was honest and trustworthy. Yet Fitton was with Greenough in believing Webster failing.[3] However, we cannot know that Fitton was always straight with Greenough or Greenough with Fitton, for these two also fell out. 

Of course, both Greenough and Webster had their admirers and supporters but these too probably said and thought quite different things to and about the individuals they supported. Some, like Henry Warburton (c.1784-1858), who stood as mediator between Greenough and Conybeare, could barely comprehend the cause and depth of the disagreement which separated his friends. This was, however, but a moment in their lives. One day Greenough despised Conybeare while wishing to like him; the next he was more disposed to understand him. My aim here is not simply to reveal a dispute, which I shall briefly return to later, but to suggest that relationships and personalities are considerably more complex than we generally credit. 

Consider, for example, our images of Smith and Greenough shaped by events in the late 1810s, the one impoverished and heading for debtors’ prison and the other an empowered and wealthy gentleman. Yet, just a few years later, Greenough was embroiled in a succession of jealous disputes and surrounded by critics. The hurt was so strong that he temporarily turned his back on geology. Meanwhile, Smith was in Kirkby Lonsdale in Yorkshire: ‘In this sweet retirement Mr. Smith long and willingly lingered, feeding all the best qualities of his mind by calm meditations, not unmixed with the poetic impressions which seem perpetually to haunt the romantic banks of the Lune’ (Phillips 1844, p 104). Most people suffer tragedy but few live tragic lives, and if anyone was fitted not to do so, it was William Smith. Although Greenough possessed none of Smith’s financial worries, he appears to have lacked Smith’s happy resilience.

Relationship-building was critical to the birth of the new science, but in the early years of the Society it was often between individuals who knew each other insufficiently. This was dealt with using diplomacy – that social concern with illusions, even if for very noble reasons. By the late 1810s, however, these illusions had evolved and resulted from concealment through economical disclosure. Individuals may have known each other better, but they knew rather less about each other’s projects and ambitions. 

The Geological Society we must imagine, then, if we are to make sense of these disputes and the place of Smith, was composed of indefinite individuals, constantly reconfiguring their relationships, while components in their world – people, objects, science – were in constant flux. My point in referring to this complexity is to note that the historical interpretations we make of this world are political (Macintyre and Clark 2003). How we cast our historical actors is largely up to us. The Society itself is, in this respect, also a historian. It publishes its own history in the very manner of its being. Let us look at that history.

The Society exhibited

If we display a solitary object in an architectural space, we provide an opportunity for the construction of meanings. If we juxtapose several objects, a narrative might result. This is the basis upon which museums have operated for centuries. What, then, should we make of the modern-day entrance hall to the Geological Society’s grand Burlington House apartments? Here, it seems, a museum has been reinstated in an institution which, in 1911, decided not to have one (Moore et al. 1991, p. 51). Indeed, many of the artefacts on display here once found a place in that long-lost museum. 

Here, the bust of founder and President, George Bellas Greenough, stands next to his fine but contentious geological map of November 1819. Those who penetrate the apartments a little further will find John MacCulloch’s (1773-1835) equally fine geological map of Scotland published in 1836, but really a product of the years before 1832. Not far away is his bust. MacCulloch was an early member of the Society but, unlike Greenough’s, his map was not a product of the Society’s efforts (Bowden 2009). Like Greenough’s map, however, MacCulloch’s also conceals a contemporary dispute, this time about the uses of public money (Cumming 1985). 

Today, however, these are mere backdrops to the great map of William Smith, published in August 1815. Indeed, one might at first suffer the illusion that one has entered a Smithian museum, for here is his map, his portrait, his bust and even his nephew and heir, John Phillips (1800-1874). Amongst the few books on sale at the Society’s reception desk, that are not produced by its publishing house, is Simon Winchester’s The Map that Changed the World. An accessible, populist and romantic fusion of fact and fiction,[4] it uses for a plotline that corruption of the biblical narrative that has fuelled a hundred heroic Hollywood sporting biopics.[5] In it, the humble Smith is initially engaged in relating psalms to people in all walks of life, the profundity of his revelations fundamentally altering the thinking of those who heard him. However, at that very point when he should have been raised aloft he was crucified in a debtor’s prison, only then to have his 40 days in the wilderness. It was while in that wilderness that he found himself and others found him, and he rode into London, not many years before his death, to be resurrected and pronounced ‘the father of English geology’! 

This is the Smith of popular belief and as a result of Winchester‘s bestseller we can say there is a popular belief, whatever the book’s historiographic merits. Winchester has done the Geological Society the service of placing it on the London tourist trail and a new public is now admitted to these private rooms to gaze up at Smith’s extraordinary achievement, doubtless casting an eye at the evil Greenough who looks on. They then pull back the curtain on Greenough’s map to see the perfect image of a theft, perhaps not realising that the rocks themselves constrain the art. But if it was not a theft, was it not an injustice for Greenough to publish his improved map so soon after Smith had published his? Smith lost out on the possibilities of long-term sales, not least from successive editions – or so some claimed at the time. Greenough’s map, which apparently cost £3000 for the first two editions,[6] was the result of the cooperative efforts of the Society’s members and supporters, and published using private funds. Of all the maps which today hang in Burlington House, only Greenough’s speaks of the Society and its aspirations in 1807. Yet, for nearly 200 years, its achievement has been overshadowed by rumours doubting its originality and the integrity of its maker (see, for example, Laudan 1977).

Whatever goes on in the minds of those who, today, look at these maps, the performance here is not just for them; it is also for the Society, for the Society has needed Smith since 1831. Here, in the entrance hall, then, history is presented to evoke a sense of institutional memory, and to suggest an impeccable geological pedigree stretching back over generations to the very founders of the science. History is here performing for the sake of the Society’s membership and its science, constructing an institution which best serves them both. The Society must, besides maintaining the business of income and services, construct a political identity for a nation’s science. This must be an identity which Fellows find attractive – for they will make it part of their own identities – and which has impact beyond the Society’s walls. Fellows sign up to this identity but they also exploit it. Who amongst the Fellows, for example, pays their annual membership fee at least partly for the sake of what the Fellowship represents rather than the use that will be made of the Society’s publications and services? How many work in occupations where this Fellowship casts a small spell over their employers? Indeed, in some cases employers reimburse the fee, aware, too, that the Fellowship might also cast a small spell over others. 

These things are far removed from what we might normally consider ‘geology’, but they are nevertheless part of the science. Only when we grasp this can we assess the place of Smith or the value of a year of bicentennial celebrations, or indeed, the tenor of the Society’s new biography, Whatever is Under the Earth, written for the membership, rather than for historians,[7] by historian of science, Gordon Herries Davies (2007).

If, then, we distinguish the purposes of a society from more narrow conceptions of geological science, what should we make of Smith’s map, hung on the Society’s wall? Here, Smith’s great masterpiece works with the architecture of the space, the interior décor, the prestigious London location, the modern lecture theatre and a fabulous old library (with its very modern Lyell Collection), to construct an image of geology befitting a national institution. Everything, down to the light fittings and wall coverings, contributes to this image.[8] Only by these means can this private Society seek to stand alongside London’s great public institutions and command an equal level of authority and respect. 

‘Geology’, as it is embodied within the very being of the Society, is thus, in part, dependent upon the image the past can be made to present. By these means, Fellows might imagine that geology is one of those things that made Britain ‘Great’. Of course, we might perceive this without ever inquiring what precisely a society does or whether it really does contribute in any significant way to the science as more narrowly understood. Or, indeed, without considering where the Society stops and the individual begins.[9] Smith is, then, situated in the entrance hall so that Fellows and visitors alike can imagine and believe. And, if we want, we can imagine that he is the father. It is a use of the past which requires no appeal to rational thought or rigorous historiography (as ironic as that might seem, given the empirical nature of the science of geology which these historical beliefs seek to support).

Actuality, however, is unimportant here, for what we are discussing are identities – the science’s identity, the Society’s identity and Fellows’ identities – which are not the simple product of objective logic but result from myth, belief and perception. They are in these senses aesthetic. It is here, then, that Winchester’s book finds a role, for, in the construction of myths of identity, rigorous histories are rather less important than convincing stories. 

There are many national societies, some with far larger memberships, who lack this history or London premises of this quality. For those societies, members cannot walk into long-established spaces and sense that their discipline permeates its every pore. They cannot look up at artefacts like Smith’s map, which with every passing year approaches the status of a religious icon. In possessing these historical things, then, the modern Society should consider itself blessed. 

But the Society does not possess these things because Smith was a prominent member; he was not a member at all. It possesses these things because in 1831 the then President, Adam Sedgwick, saw Smith’s political potential. Unmatched in his eloquence,[10] Sedgwick took Smith and remade him, turning him from provincial folk hero into a major icon of British science. In doing so, he implicitly recognised a major transformation in the Society’s conceptualisation of geology. In order to understand this we must first be clear about what Sedgwick actually did.

Claiming a geology for England 

On 18 February 1831, William Smith travelled to London to be given what might be deemed, with hindsight, to be the greatest honour of his life: the Society’s first Wollaston Medal. It assured Smith of his immortality and John Phillips of his intellectual inheritance. The decision had been made barely a month earlier, at a Council Meeting on 11 January 1831, 

That the first Wollaston Medal be given to Mr. William Smith, in consideration of his being a great original discoverer in English Geology; and especially for his having been the first, in this country, to discover and to teach the identification of strata, and to determine their succession by means of their embedded fossils. 

We should consider what ‘English geology’ means in this minute, for Adam Sedgwick’s tells us that his intention was to give Smith the medal and the ‘purse of twenty guineas’ with little oratory. The Council’s minute tells us that its members made no claim beyond the nation – Smith was merely a contributor to a history of geology in England. But Sedgwick had a few hours before the presentation to probe Smith about his discoveries (information about these had been sent by Phillips in advance but had only made it as far as Cambridge (Morgan 2007, p. 14)). Fortunately, Smith had arrived carrying a number of key historical documents which enabled Sedgwick to see an opportunity to place Smith not merely as a labourer in an English field of study but in ‘the correct history of European geology’ (Sedgwick 1831, p. 271). Sedgwick was to turn Smith himself into a Smithian fossil and place him low down in the succession of European discoveries. In doing so, he was to redefine the meaning of ‘English geology’ in nationalistic terms.

In his attempts to locate the earliest possible date for Smith’s discoveries, it was natural for Sedgwick to soften that moment of initial discovery by suggesting that Smith was a child of the rocks of Oxfordshire, whose innate qualities act ‘powerfully on peculiar minds, so as to influence the whole tenour of after-life’ (p. 271). From the age of 18, in 1787, Smith was travelling, observing, collecting, and drawing sections. ‘I think these facts of great importance’, Sedgwick remarked, ‘as they contain the germ of all Mr. Smith’s future discoveries’ (p. 274). In 1795, Smith had created the first stratigraphic collection of fossils, which Sedgwick thought a defining action unmatched by any Continental geologist. By 1800, according to Sedgwick, Smith had produced that critical correlation which linked the strata of the South West of England with those of the North East. Thus, in a period of prehistory, so to speak, long before the invention of the Geological Society, Sedgwick was willing to assert, 

For eight or nine years he [Smith] had been steadily and resolutely advancing, but without aid, and almost without sympathy; for he was so far before the rest of our geologists, if indeed they deserved the name, that they could not even comprehend the importance of what he had done.

(p. 275)

This view was corroborated by a letter from Rev. Benjamin Richardson, who had been Smith’s friend and supporter since 1799.  Indeed, Richardson admitted to disseminating Smith’s table of strata of that year to correspondents across Europe in 1801.[11] Now that table was laid out before the assembled audience as a physical proof of this remarkable claim. Beside it was Smith’s 1801 prospectus for a map and description of strata. Sedgwick emphasised that all this was before Cuvier and Brongniart’s ‘magnificent’ fossil-based correlations in the Paris Basin (Taquet 2009). Sedgwick’s use of ‘magnificent’ here had the dual purpose of softening any offence given to two esteemed foreign colleagues whilst elevating an achievement for which he now stole priority. He was also able to show that fossil-based geology had entered the Society’s publications under the influence of Smith in an era before the establishment of palaeontology. All this belonged to an age so distant that it even predated septuagenarian Joseph Townsend’s odd and much derided book, The Character of Moses Established for Veracity as an Historian (1813). Now that book, with its glowing appreciation of Smith, was an important historical document which had said nearly twenty years earlier what Sedgwick was saying now.  How blind they had all been! Or, rather, how blind they wished to be seen to be!

While we cannot, from the published account, know precisely what Sedgwick said, in these statements are echoed claims made for Smith by Society members in the mid 1810s. Yet Sedgwick reworks them and uses them to make a claim for England. In conferring on Smith the title of ‘the Father of English Geology’, one senses, then, not a modest claim that the Scots, French and Germans had their own fathers and now the English had theirs, but rather a national assertion that the fossil-based study of strata which had come to the fore in recent years was to be understood as ‘English geology’; some had thought it French. This gives an entirely different meaning to the event, the appellation, and to the notion of English geology, and makes understandable John Phillips’ claim, in 1843, that Wales was the ‘only remaining Crown which English Geology can offer’ (Knell 2000, p. 272). Smith was the father not of geology in England (a common interpretation which has forced recent historians to rail against the use of the term) but of an internationally important genre of geology which the national Geological Society could now be said to possess. It was this geology that would enable the likes of Sedgwick and Murchison to claim much of the stratigraphic column. 

It was proposed by Smith’s admirer, Fitton, and seconded by Smith’s supposed nemesis, Greenough, that Sedgwick’s address be published. The Society had long established a belief that publication alone provided the means to make and defend claims; there can be no doubt that Sedgwick’s speech contained a significant claim, though not everyone might have signed up to it. Greenough’s role here may well have been politically symbolic: perhaps it was hoped that this noble act would put an end to all the speculation and accusation. It was followed by Fitton writing a history of geology in England (and Europe) which gave Smith the status Sedgwick desired. I shall come to this history in due course, for, in order to write this history, it was necessary for Fitton to recast events. First, however, we must understand something of the Society itself, its conceptualisation of geology without Smith, and its early efforts to establish that science in Britain.


A geological powerhouse

The Geological Society began with tremendous energy and cooperation; its birth was a high impact event which seemed to mobilise the nation.[12] At its birth it was simply ‘The Geological Society’; it had no need of its ‘of London’ until forced by its imitators.

The birth of the Society has been described as the logical culmination of a social and intellectual trajectory which sees interests and overlapping memberships flowing through the British Mineralogical Society, the Askesian Society and the Geological Society (Weindling 1979; 1983; Veneer 2009; Torrens 2009). The ephemeral nature of these earlier incarnations of a ‘geological’ society is important to understanding the growing possibilities for socialised participation in this emerging field, but we cannot say that one begat the other. The linkages here are purely of our own making – a distillation of considerable social interchange in London at the turn of the century. An alternative trajectory, for example, might be drawn through Guy’s Hospital and the Medical and Chirurgical Society, or, indeed, any number of London societies, for these men were engaged in many (Lewis 2009b). It was in such locations that professional interests in chemistry and mineralogy were already established. 

A third trajectory, and the now standard narrative of the Society’s birth, came from Greenough himself and has been the basis for all subsequent histories (Woodward 1907; Rudwick 1963; Herries Davies 2007), though it was doubted by Weindling (1979, p. 249) and had been contested by the Society’s first Secretary, James Laird (1779-1841), when Greenough first gave voice to it in his Presidential Address of 1834 (Greenough 1834, p. 42).[13] It was on that occasion that Greenough spoke of the contribution of founder member, Dr William Babington (1756-1833), who had recently died. In doing so, he described the Geological Society as originating in weekly teatime meetings, held at Babington’s house, which pushed forward the publication of the Comte de Bournon’s (1751-1825) Traité complet de la chaux carbonatée auquel on a joint une Introduction à la Minéralogie […] une Théorie de la Cristallisation (1808) (Herries Davies 2009; Taquet 2009). The group consisted of Babington, three Quakers – William Allen (1770-1843), Richard Phillips (1778-1851) (who had been trained by Allen) and his brother William (Torrens 2009) – and about 12 others. Finding their meetings enjoyable they continued, but as an informal breakfast club which met as early as 7 am; their discussion, observation and chemical analysis centred on Babington’s mineral collection. From these discussions came the Geological Society (discussed more fully by Lewis 2009b).

Here, then, are three possible trajectories leading to the birth of the Society which should force us to dispense with any simple creation narrative. Clearly a society, as a confluence of individuals, is also a confluence of diverse interests and social relations – enhanced by personal networks and rife nepotism (Lewis 2009b). There were multiple paths which led to the formation of this dining club which then became a learned society. Indeed, to the moment of its birth, we can no more claim the influence of the Askesian, Bournon’s book, or Guy’s Hospital than we can the chill of the November mornings or the quality of British beef; all had their part to play. 

Of more fundamental importance was population; both its densities and demographics. As Fitton recognised in 1812, it affected one’s profession, one’s intellectual development and one’s leisure. He was then a prisoner of his medical practice in Northampton where he found ‘no food for mineralogists’. Although no geological novice, the county offered a kind of geology – that of strata – of which he was wholly ignorant. He had yet to discover what lay beneath his feet or how to begin to discover it, yet he was already a well-established contributor to the Society.[14] The situation was made worse by his scientific isolation. As he told Greenough, ‘There is no scientific society in or near this place […] I feel veryseverely the difference between London & the country, in the privation of that liberal & delightful intercourse with the members of my own profession, which I fear is only to be found in great cities.’[15] Fitton’s trips ‘to Town’ (London) would take in the meetings of the Geological Society and the Medical and Chirurgical (i.e. surgical) Society, which was just two years older, and Sir Joseph Banks’ Sunday meetings.[16] London was an intellectual oasis where he could freshen up his not unrelated medical and geological knowledge. 

The Society was, then, an elite and very expensive private club which feared losing its exclusivity. Leonard Horner (1785-1864), an early Secretary, told Greenough this less than 18 months after its establishment, 

Allen has hinted to me, that we are thought to be going on too rapidly in the admission of members, and are not sufficiently discriminate. Now that we form so respectable a body, we certainly ought to be more nice,[17] & render the admission more difficult perhaps than it is at present – it will to a certain extent add to its respectability.[18]

To progress, the Society certainly had to conform to contemporary expectations; if it was to have influence then it certainly needed respectability and this was most easily obtained by social discrimination. That does not mean, however, that members necessarily possessed an overly developed sense of their superiority; it was simply a matter of playing by rules which are not so very different from those which distinguish the Society today. Certainly, Greenough, for example, communicated with modesty and on equal terms with many of his supposedly social inferiors. The Society, too, had to fight for its own status but its early tussle with the Royal Society (Lewis 2009b; Knight 2009) seemed only to make the geologists more united: ‘I am quite satisfied, that if we chuse, this business will go a great way to establish our Society on a firmer footing.’[19]

The Society rapidly acquired a sense of those factors and signifiers which would aid its advance. Horner, for example, soon laid out a detailed plan for the Society to enter into publishing, perhaps along the lines of the Journal de Mines of Paris. In 1811, the Society published the first volume of its Transactions. It was a remarkable achievement for a Society so young. Its pages perfectly embodied the energy and spirit, mobility and philosophical position of its highly cooperative membership. Fitton captured honestly the naïve enthusiasm of ‘plain men […] who felt the importance of a subject about which they knew very little in detail; and, guided only by a sincere desire to learn’ ([Fitton] 1817, p.70). Greenough imagined that there was hardly ‘any one in the Kingdom beyond the pale of our little coterie who aspired to be thought a Geologist’[20] but in believing this he was perhaps reflecting the novelty of the name rather than the rarity of the practice (Rudwick 2009). Certainly throughout the Society’s first 15 years, the term ‘mineralogical’ was used quite commonly, but not without confusion, to mean or embrace the ‘geological’. As Fitton told Greenough, in 1812, ‘mineralogy (I mean the term to include also geology)’.[21] This mineralogical perspective owed everything to the inescapable influence of Abraham Gottlob Werner (1749-1817) whose writings were at the height of their powers (Rudwick 2005, p. 422) and to whom I shall return a little later. 

The Society established itself as a network, its central body initially made up of, and restricted to, Ordinary Members who were by definition situated in London, with tentacles formed of a far greater number of Honorary Members distributed across the country. This network personified geology as it was imaged in 1807. It was composed of men of wealth and land who had interests in those aspects of property which expose the underlying geology (mines, quarries, engineering projects, agriculture) and who had workforces of labourers and engineers fluent in the language of such places. To these were added men of those sciences thought to be in command of the material study of the Earth (principally chemists and mineralogists, the two being generally inseparable) (Knight 2009). Medical men were an important source of scientific expertise, primarily for their knowledge of, and interest in, chemistry and mineralogy; an interest in anatomy or palaeontology was then a rather minor concern (Lewis 2009b). Above all, the Society aimed to be useful and it only gave honours in order to receive some payment; honorary members were so honoured in order to encourage their contributions. These contributions were to fuel debate in the City. 

However, there were others, like Fitton, Buckland, Conybeare, Farey, Thomas Meade of Chatley Lodge, near Bath, and Gideon Mantell, medical man and protégé of James Parkinson, who appear as extraordinarily active correspondents long before being recorded as members, if, indeed, they ever did join. Indeed, it is doubtful that anything meaningful can be drawn from the dates on which individuals became members; the Society was bigger than its membership. Nor can we suppose to know much of the business or activity of the Society from the record of its meetings or its committee minute books. There was, it is true, a core in London, made up of the likes of Laird, Horner and other officers who contributed significantly. Like Greenough, many of these were inveterate travellers. Some also had bases distant from London. However, this dynamic aspect only becomes apparent in what survives of Greenough’s correspondence (as first President he was the recipient of much of the Society’s correspondence). Here we see an investigative and mobile organisation in pursuit of a grand project to define the discipline and resources of an English geology. For many in the provinces, Greenough’s identity, and doubtless those of other Society men, was closely associated with the Society. Greenough, in particular, was seen as a dynamo, driving, and making possible, this new field of investigation: ‘We soon became fired with our subject, & pushed on vigorously’, he later recalled.[22]

In December 1807, Aikin and Greenough proposed to write to every member with ‘a series of questions relating to the most essential points in Geology’.[23] These Geological Inquiries written by Aikin and modified by Greenough were printed and circulated to members two months later.[24] Greenough believed this indicated ‘how early a period I had contemplated a work which readily passed on afterwards to completion’ (his map).[25] These Inquiries, however, support no such claim. They clearly articulate the chemical and mineralogical visionary apparatus of the two authors, and Greenough’s latent geographical interests.

The Society soon adopted a systematic approach, establishing committees in focused areas of study. A committee was established in May 1808, for example, to resolve the problems of nomenclature in geology and mineralogy. Members were charged with gathering up provincial terms so as to eradicate synonymy and gain a unified understanding of the nation’s geology. By June 1810, the Society possessed eight committees including those concerned with the selection of papers to be read at meetings; to form and arrange the collection of minerals; to begin the production of maps; to undertake chemical analyses; and to investigate ‘extraneous fossils’.[26] There seems to have been an order to their establishment, as following the committee for chemical analysis, Greenough recalled:

Soon after this two other committees were appointed which were considered useful not so much in regard to the subject matter referred to them, but as inducing our members to seek each other’s acquaintance & to induce them to take an interest in what was going on, & to stimulate their desire to be what their proposers had declared them likely to be to the Society viz useful and valuable members.

The first of these was a Committee of Maps and Sections. Bearing in mind that Greenough was making a record for posterity, he later recalled: 

The result of this Committee was the execution by Mr Atkinson of an etched outline map of England extracted from the larger map of Cary which it was intended to circulate freely over the country among the honorary members in order that they might lay down upon it the boundary lines of the strata in their several neighbourhoods. The outline map did not prove so useful as was anticipated but I refer to it as shewing the zeal by which we were all animated at a period when geological mapping was a novelty. The etching was performed gratuitously by Mr Atkinson & the President of the day [Greenough] who had from the very first aspired to be the Author of a geological map of England most willingly paid for the paper & printing.

The proposal to establish this committee was made at a meeting on 3 March 1809, with a request for volunteers.[27] On the 7 April it was constituted: ‘That the construction of Mineralogical Maps and collections of Drawings, Models, Sections of Mines & c, are well worthy [of] the attention of the Geological Society, and cannot fail materially to promote the objects which they had in view in associating’. It is noteworthy that Greenough was not, initially at least, a member of this committee. 

On the same day, a Committee of Extraneous Fossils was established. Greenough recalled:

It consisted of Capt Apsley who afterwards by will bequeathed to the Society a collection of fossil shells, the Count de Bournon […], Mr Carlisle who as a physiologist was likely to treat such a subject in the way most wanted. Mr Lambert in natural history an infectious enthusiast, Dr McCulloch a man of extensive acquaintance with physics & better acquainted with geology than most of his colleagues. Dr Marcet an excellent chemist. Mr Parkinson not merely the best but almost the only fossilist of his day at least in England. Dr Roget even then distinguished as a comparative physiologist. Dr Saunders a physician investigative practise. Mr Sowerby already the greatest authority in conchology (with the exception perhaps of Mr Parkinson) & well versed in other branches of natural history. Dr Warren who in his own profession was considered by a colleague who wished to satirise it as the best guesser in the college, & Mr Wilkinson who lived in the neighbourhood of Bath & who starting under the direction of Mr Meade, Mr Richardson & Mr Townsend was known to be the possessor of one of the most valuable collections of fossils in the only county almost in which such collections were frequent.[28]

While Greenough later used this to indicate that the Society had not been ignorant of the value of fossils, at the time in question, this committee had no immediate effect on the Society’s collecting or palaeontological interests. It was only with the absorption of Smith’s ideas that this changed. This is, however, for the moment unimportant. First we must re-imagine the Society as dynamic and connected, actively pursuing its broadly-conceived and mineralogically-tinged geology.

Data, empiricism and theory

It has been remarked by critics, that the want of education is sometimes of advantage to a man of genius, who is thus left free to the suggestions of invention, and is neither biassed in favour of erroneous maxims, nor deterred from the trial of his own powers by names of high authority. On this principle, it is evident that the members of the Geological Society have derived great benefit from their want of systematical instruction.

([Fitton] 1817, p70)

The greatest provincial concentration of support for Greenough’s project was at Oxford University. A bond of mutual respect and affection became rapidly established, as is apparent from young William Conybeare’s teasing of the slightly older Greenough, as here in June 1811, when all seemed to be peace and conviviality in this nascent geological world:

Far from using my influence and solicitations with Kidd to visit you in London I regard the request as perfectly shameless – the whole nomenclature of mineralogy affords not a term sufficiently harsh to stigmatize it by […] Are you not conscious that it is positively incumbent on you to visit him and your other friends here […] In our kindness however we allow you one chance of redeeming your character by spending the week of the Commemoration which is nearly approaching among us.[29]

This reprimand was accompanied by a circular invitation recording the names of the ‘Members of the Independent Rag Formation of Oxford’ (Fig. 1). However, Greenough could not attend, which called upon Conybeare to respond playfully, ‘I regret extremely that the Gnome of the mines was of so stubborn a nature as placed him beyond the influence of our magic circle to which every sprite of more gentle frame and occupation must necessarily have been obedient’.[30]

Fig. 1. William Conybeare’s invitation to Greenough, June 1811, reads: ‘The interests of the Geological Society imperiously demanding the personal attendance of its President in this place; & no individual presuming singly to request such an act of condescension, We, the circumscribed members of the Independent Rag Formation of Oxford do with great earnestness express our hope that he will hold a visitation in this University on Monday the 23 inst. & though the form of this address affects no particular angle with the Horizon, yet as its prototype is to be found in the Concretions of the oldest Granites as of the newest Trap it is sincerely hoped that he will consider it as a specimen not unworthy his attention.’(Courtesy of UCL Special Collections).[85]

Their correspondence records the extraordinary respect afforded Greenough and the degree to which the Oxford geologists were on-board the Society’s project, even if ‘Independent’. The intellectually sharp Conybeare regarded Greenough as gifted in enterprise. Indeed, all the members of the Rag Formation were correspondents with Greenough but most diligent in this relationship were: Conybeare, who exceeded all others in the supply of data; John Kidd (1775-1851), who became Greenough’s great correspondent and friend and who took a leading role in nurturing the new science at Oxford; and Buckland, who was soon to succeed Kidd and who became one of Greenough’s closest friends. 

Kidd was, interestingly enough, yet another product of Guy’s Hospital (see Lewis 2009b) where he had trained in medicine from 1797. Lecturer in Chemistry at Oxford from 1801, he was soon a leading light in the emergence of geology there, and wrote to Greenough admiringly, congratulating him on the stature he had given the science through his efforts as the Society’s President. Greenough was seen not simply as a hub gathering information on British (and European) geology, and working out the principles of geology itself; he was also credited with developing a culture of geology across the land. ‘A Geological Committee met at Buckland’s Rooms this afternoon at 4 o/clock; &, having dined with that worthy, proceeded to Sir G. Bowyer’s Coal-pit at Foxcomb. As you can well guess we met with nothing there but Blue Clay’. This was the failed coal trial at Bagley Wood, discussed by Torrens (2001, p. 74, 76), which led to Bowyer’s ultimate ruin.[31] The pit fell naturally into Kidd’s local network, the possession of a gentleman of that social stratum which populated the University. Kidd continued, 

We flatter ourselves that you will be much pleased with the improved state of the Mineralogical Room, & Cabinets, of the Ashmole: the collection of which has within these two days been enriched by the addition of the upper jaw of a fossil Rhinoceros, which had been placed amongst & catalogued as the jaw of the recent animal. The subject seems to flourish here – I began my lectures on Monday, & have a very good Class.[32]

Both Greenough and Fitton were early associates of this Oxford circle and Fitton in particular was considerably impressed by the contribution it was making. The subject was so new, however, that respect and information flowed both ways; Oxford was finding its geological feet too. In May 1813, for example, Kidd and Buckland sat up till the early hours discussing two lectures written by Greenough.[33] The nature of these lectures is probably indicated by Greenough’s draft lecture notes on strata which still survive. These reveal Greenough’s awareness of Werner, Saussure and other earlier workers, and consider quite fundamental questions about the structure and field relations of rock masses.[34] Like those in Oxford with whom he corresponded, Greenough aspired to make a fundamental breakthrough concerning the structure of the Earth.

Kidd, who in June 1814 was planning to visit Greenough’s collection, was preparing to publish his own lectures. These he refrained from calling ‘a System of Geology’ but rather ‘An Essay’ or ‘Essays, on Geology’ (Kidd 1815). In this essay he wished to make two main points:

The two points which I kept constantly in view during my lectures were these – 1st that there is such a degree of uniformity & regularity in the phenomena of Geology as to afford upon the whole a practical certainty in the operations of mining, & c – and, 2dly that the character of the phenomena is, generally speaking, such as to render abortive any attempt at explaining them by the analogy of any effects produced by the operation of existing causes.[35]  

There was nothing odd in Kidd’s position. His view of stratification placed granite as the lowermost stratum and he told Greenough, ‘I shall certainly attend to your hint of inserting such notices as may be in my power respecting the Chemical Analysis of the Strata.’ Like Greenough, Kidd was a ‘Neptunist’ who believed in the aqueous origin of granite (Kölbl-Ebert 2009); by contrast, Fitton and Conybeare were clearly ‘vulcanists’ or ‘plutonists’ by the mid 1810s, if not before ([Fitton] 1817 p 80). This reflected an old debate still raging across Europe but it had little bearing on how the interior of the Earth might be investigated and both perspectives suggested the validity of chemical analysis. But these were not the only ideas shaping the outlook of these nascent geologists; the subject had a history which Fitton preferred to see as composed of a ‘chaos of philosophies’ ([Fitton] 1818, p. 313): Wernerian geognosy, Neptunism, Volcanism, uniformitarianism, catastrophism, mineralogy, chemistry, de Luc’s Christian philosophy and countless theories of the Earth (Rudwick 2005; 2009; O’Connor 2009). It was partly from these building blocks that the new ‘geology’ was to be constructed. It gave each individual his own outlook which resulted in the presence of multiple and overlapping ‘geologies’. And while these resulted in what appear much like modern-day disputes over fact and theory they were more fundamental as they concerned different conceptions of what geology was and how it should be investigated, including its natural disciplinary allegiances. 

However, the Society men were determined not to let their theoretical favourites and biases affect their social interactions as they had ‘north of the border’. Onetime Society supporter, John Farey, was not alone in believing the Scots had fallen foul of this theorizing: ‘Edinburghians, who hitherto have so readily and warmly entered into disputes on Geological Theories […] the task of defending, each their own set of whimsical Dogmas, against the facts of Nature, and the published Observations of several Writers’ ([Farey] 1817a). Farey thought the whole thing laughable. Evidently the leadership of the Society thought so too for their response was to adopt a strongly anti-theoretical inductivism which they maintained throughout the first two decades of the Society’s existence. It was essentially an argument against a priorireasoning, a position to which Werner himself subscribed. But like Werner, the Society men could do little to remove the theoretically-calibrated spectacles through which they made sense of their data. While they were suspicious of the publications of Edinburgh Wernerian, Robert Jameson (1774-1854), including his widely consulted three-volume A System of Mineralogy, published in successive editions between 1804 and 1816, there is no doubt that the Society’s geology was also, for the first decade, naturally situated in a Wernerian world. 

Werner espoused a view of the Earth which saw rocks as precipitates. Rudwick (2005, p. 175) tells us that Werner did not claim this idea as original, his most celebrated essay being ‘carefully entitled “A Brief Classification and Description…”, not “Theory of the Earth”’ (see also, Albrecht & Ladwig 2002). Werner’s descriptions of strata were widely influential, and shaped thinking in Germany, Russia and elsewhere (Khain & Malakhova 2009; Guntau 2009), and certainly had a great impact on the British before 1820. Werner’s New Theory of Mineral Veins (1791) had become more accessible with its translation into French in 1802 and English seven years later. His mineralogical Treatise on the External Characters of Fossils, which did not discuss ‘fossils’ in the modern sense, had first appeared in English in 1805. Still alive in the first decade of the Society’s existence, Werner offered a thoroughly worked and aesthetically appealing system of universal application. Rudwick, again:

Werner thought that the two dozen “species” [of rock] described in his Brief Classification probably included all those reported so far, or likely to be reported in the future, from anywhere in the world. In that sense they were “universal”, and he expected that his classification – with due refinement – would prove to be valid everywhere. This was a conclusion no more unrealistic, or conceited, than the confidence of mineralogists that they had described the broad outlines of mineral diversity on a global scale. Gebirge[mountains or the rock mass of which mountain’s are made] of granite and gneiss, coal and gypsum, were “universal” in the same sense as minerals such as quartz and feldspar, hornblende and mica.

(Rudwick 2005, pp. 94-5)

This refined descriptive and classificatory work was least contested by the Society men as it seemed to have validity beyond the ‘Neptunist’ theory upon which it rested. Yet, as François Ellenberger (1999, p278) noted, when reviewing a contemporary statement of the Wernerian position, even its most theoretical aspects seemed unproblematic: ‘This theoretical genetic system, summarized in this manner in 1802, strikes us today by its perfect logic’. Werner was, however, a topic for theological debate rather than for religious adoption in the Geological Society. He affected the Society’s outlook and made theory a natural aspiration. Farey was amongst those supporters who understood this, but also understood that this needed to emerge through scientific rigour and objectivity, as he told his correspondent, Greenough, in August 1810:

I am anxious Sir, to see the scientific caution now so happily established in Chemistry, of always repeating & verifying new Experiments, by different persons, before they are admitted as data, on which to ground any reasoning, or extension in the Theory, introduced & rigidly enforced in Geology.[36]

Farey valued the ways of chemists so fully (Farey 1811) that he, cheekily perhaps, expected Greenough to verify his own work in Derbyshire. 

The empiricism to be found in the fieldwork of the Society’s correspondents tended to result in discrete pieces of data. The facts collected were rather bald and disconnected. Correlation proved difficult or impossible. In this respect they used a kind of naïve empiricism different from that applied by Smith. Smith built his knowledge out from an initial base, extending and testing it as he moved further afield. Like the Society geologists he too was cautious but Smith did not rely upon a network and therefore gathered his facts from an observed geological continuum. Most critically, he developed his knowledge in an internalised mental database without the need to deploy language or illustration to communicate meaning. He observed, absorbed, correlated, and verbally communicated his conclusions in the field and in the museum or collection where real things underlined the truth of his words. And, as an ultimate proof, he could use his knowledge to predict and thus prove. The Society men were by comparison considerably disadvantaged and not only by theoretical spectacles and attempts at naïve induction; they also had to deploy language in a medium where terms were ambiguous and uncontrolled. In 1812, Farey and Greenough were in agreement that a basic terminology (stratum, bed, seam, etc.) was required but that it was not yet present because of Wernerian influences from Scotland and the local terminologies of ‘Quarry-men, Colliers, Miners, Wellsinkers & c.’[37] William Phillips, in 1816, wrote, ‘The Geognosy of Jameson is altogether a scientific work, not well adapted to the learner; in as much as a preponderating anxiety for the support of a favourite theory, has caused the introduction of many terms not hitherto adopted by English mineralogists’ (Phillips 1816, p. vi). 

Data arrived at the Society’s headquarters in disjointed form, sent from individuals uneven in their scientific capabilities and perhaps attached to different nomenclatures. Although this kind of fact-collecting network was used repeatedly in the early nineteenth century, such as in the elucidation of the geology of Yorkshire in the 1820s, in the ‘Great Devonian Controversy’ in the 1830s and in the geological survey of Wales in the 1840s, each of which drew upon John Phillips to achieve the fossil correlations, all in the end required Phillips to enter the field himself (Knell 2000). In doing so, he would deploy that mode of investigation which Smith had used which assured that facts were seen in context and, as well as being collected physically, were also accessioned into a mental database (Knell 2000). 

Greenough may not have theorized these implicit weaknesses in the fact-collecting network but he would certainly have experienced them. He could only counter them by being, like Smith, an inveterate traveller. Indeed, his wealth and mobility enabled him to see far more of British, Irish and Continental geology than Smith ever would, though never, of course, in the same depth as a man who lives in the field. Thus while Conybeare would later refer to Greenough as a mere compiler, this he was not. Greenough studied the rocks first hand. As Fitton told him, 

Your account of your travels (if that word be not too humble) is quite intriguing. By this time you must certainly be so far acquainted with the general structure of England & Ireland that you can tell to any persons disposed to minute investigation the place where most is to be learned. A kind of information excellently adapted to a president of your Society – past & future.[38]

Like Smith, Greenough also possessed a mental image of British geology as only by its possession could he make sense of the data of his correspondents. However, Greenough’s database was not constructed on Smithian principles nor did it develop from a secure local foundation. Fitton might have considered Greenough’s tourism a little superficial in this regard for he pushed him to find his own locality or topic and publish in detail and by these means make a major contribution ‘which would do much for Theory’. 

Fitton knew, however, that there was also a manly aestheticism to the science which brought another kind of reward which working one’s own patch might not achieve: ‘Geology has this great advantage, of which not even Botany partakes more largely, that it leads continually to healthful and active exertion, amidst the grandest and most animating scenery of Nature’ ([Fitton] 1817 p 74) (Fig. 2). It was a science that called for tourism. This aesthetic aspect permeated the experience of geology: its objects and landscape effused emotions of time and distance, which were remodelled in minds trained in poetics and the picturesque (Heringman 2009; O’Connor 2009). Fitton’s hopes that the Society’s project would lead to ‘a rational theory of the earth’ were similarly permeated with a manly philosophical aesthetic ([Fitton] 1817 p. 73). This was simply a different way of seeing and we should not presume that Greenough acquired an inferior sense of the nation’s geology as a result.

Fig. 2. Thomas Webster, ‘Western Lines, Isle of Wight’, sepia watercolour, circa 6 March 1812 (LDGSL 400, 20), later engraved for Webster (1814).

Making the Society’s map

Greenough and his co-workers recognised early on that ‘mineralogical maps’ were the most perfect means to capture the nation’s geology empirically and without the contamination of theory. The identification and location of the ‘sienite’ at Mountsorrel in Leicestershire, for example, were by these means kept separate from the debate over what these facts actually meant. Sir James Hall believed these rocks represented the peaks of a unified mass projecting through the red clay; Farey saw them as discrete masses floating in the clay.[39] The treatment of these still contentious igneous (as we know them) masses, however, posed challenges for representation on a map: ‘Some geologists are of opinion that basaltic rocks are homogeneous with Neptunian beds with which they are associated; others consider them wholly distinct and parasitical. Not wishing to make myself a party to either opinion, I have kept the basaltic substances by themselves, but so distinguished, that each may be refereed, without difficulty, to the group in which it occurs’ (Greenough 1820, p. 3). The production of the map, then, became central to the Society’s mission to record before it sought to theoretically understand. 

As President and with Geological Inquiries acting as a catalyst, Greenough soon found himself under an avalanche of mail. From this he needed to extract data for his map. He had various paper systems for doing this, sometimes apparently cutting up correspondence, at other times transcribing it and drawing a vertical line through those parts so copied to prevent him accidentally repeating the exercise. As there are examples of letters retained out of historical interest, it seems possible that he also destroyed a good deal that he had ‘used’. While some of this information came in extensive measured sections and drawings, the bulk arrived in narrative prose and often in a difficult hand. 

This was still, for most, a period of raw discovery. Much was beyond reliable articulation. Visual methods – museum, map and section – were by far the easiest means of communicating the current state of knowledge but few were versed in their construction. Take, for example, Farey’s ‘Memorandums at Hunstanton Cliff, 24 June 1804’, which he later communicated to Greenough. Although even then a disciple of Smith, it seems this knowledge helped him not at all. Those who know this famous section of the Norfolk coast will recognise the elements in Farey’s description, but perhaps be overwhelmed by the seemingly disorganised complexity of his detail. How could this description be of any use to Greenough, unless Greenough had other sources, expert knowledge or saw the section first hand?

beginning S at the Road which comes down to the beach. – first, some alluvial Clay with pebbles in it; in about a furlong proceeding N along the Beach the Geodetic Sandstone comes up above the Beach, (the upper beds having retired some poles[40] in Land) & is covered for 1½ furlongs with the alluvial Clay, 8 or 10 feet thick; when about 15 feet of it is up, it stands in columns, & has Arches & Caves formed thro it, by the waves; alluvial clay still covering it: the Caves are formed by the washing away of the nodules & the sand-stone above, which begins at 2 feet & increases to 25 feet thick, cracking down in columns. This stratum has many pea-stones in it; the upper 10 feet is darker, & has the blue or purple joints, then in 3 furlongs, comes on a yellowish v. soft sandstone (which all washes away before the waves, & falls down) the last increases, till the whole Cliff is 4 feet. – Then at 3½ furlongs, the Red Rock comes on, covered for 50 yds with a red rubble, the chalk rubble begins to succeed it; and at ¾ furlongs, the hard bed of white stone (containing fibrous shells, broken) begins, where the Geodetic nodules goes down; the thick cake is decomposed, & has laid the harder stone (full of pea-stones) bare, like ladus helmontia. – Above the Red is an 18 inch hard stone, containing branches of softer matter than the stone, like Coraloids, then is the best view of the hard stone, containing fibrous shells, then one 2½ feet thick, then another 2¼ less perfect, then a 2 feet bed nearly of the same kind, & then a Yard more, disposed to rubble: above this are several beds of perfect stone, & most probably the Tottenhoe-stone; very little if any chalk appears; – between the red and the hard bed above it, are the very deep red lumps, & some kind of fossils, & very large branching Coraloids, branching in all directions, the Tottenhoe-stone, lays about 20 feet above the Red, the upper sand is a little nodulous, but none of the pea-stones appears in it; the red strata are about 5 feet thick all together; near a foot of the bottom is clay & sand, without any fossils, but a few pea-stones; about 2 feet high many […][41]

Fig. 3. The striking cliffs at Old Hunstanton reveal with clarity the interior of the landscape. The coast provided critical information for the construction of the geological maps of England (Author’s photograph).

To modern, informed, eyes, the striking cliffs at Hunstanton do not pose any descriptive difficulty (Fig. 3). Farey is, however, attempting an objective interpretation in which is woven the detail necessary to corroborate the identification of each stratum. There is here a sophisticated awareness of geological method based on a belief in regular succession demonstrated to him by Smith but in which many in the Society did not believe. In possessing such beliefs, Farey was ahead of the game, and by 1806 – a year before the Society’s birth – he was beginning to draw extraordinarily fine geological sections across country for Banks (Ford 1967). These named the rocks he knew but he also gave working names to other strata, numbering similar strata in order to distinguish them (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4. Strata seen through Smithian eyes: coloured geological sections drawn by John Farey revealing how his early adoption of Smith’s belief in a natural and repeated geological succession enabled him to achieve correlation considerably more rapidly that his Geological Society peers. Note he, like Smith, used numbers to distinguish strata before such strata were named. a. ‘Section from Brampton & Chesterfield to Bolsover & Langwith’.
b. ‘A rough section of part of Hampshire’, 1812 (LDGSL 450, 43, 39).

Such cross-country correlation, however, was slow to appear in the research of other core supporters of the Society. Conybeare, for example, sent Greenough 12 dense pages of text describing a geological expedition on foot to the western extremity of South Wales which he had taken with Kidd during the summer of 1811.[42] It was an exceptional contribution – as Greenough must have told Conybeare – but Conybeare admitted that he made no attempt at an understanding of the relationships between the isolated facts he had recorded. Kidd, who published the results of this trip in 1814, could locate no order in the rocks and saw no fossils; his visionary apparatus was entirely mineralogical (Kidd 1814). It seems that the response from those in London was to wonder why Conybeare had not adopted a Wernerian classification. Conybeare explained: 

I must object to the manner in which the Wernerian classification of rocks is applied to the geological appearances of countries foreign to that in which it was originally formed […]we cannot be supposed from the limited induction which has as yet been made of geological phenomena to be in possession of any thing like a complete catalogue of rock formations […] I am therefore unwilling to apply too hastily names by which [Werner] designates individual beds such as old red sandstone […] to any of our strata & wish to proceed cautiously & institute a more complete comparison of the geological observations which having been made within the limits of our own island may most easily be verified by ourselves before we proceed so far as to frame any thing which shall pretend to be a permanent nomenclature.[43]

Greenough bracketed these comments in pencil probably for reading at the next Society meeting. 

In his long follow up letter, Conybeare demonstrated the value of his comparative thinking. However, it is also apparent that Jameson, as Conybeare’s theoretical nemesis, rather than Smith, is shaping his fieldwork. At this time, Conybeare seems not to be aware of Smith’s methods, and sees fossils as useful only as something akin to those other mineralogical components (colour, lithology, and so on) which indicate specific rocks. Thus if he writes, ‘I think most certainly lias – it contains Ammonites, Pectines, & Gryphitae the latter in greatest abundance’,[44] he is merely observing a characteristic of those particular rocks long recognised by fossil collectors even before Smith; he is not practising Smithian geology. This was typical; if members were not engaging with the field occurrence of cabinet minerals, then they were describing rocks lithologically. There descriptions of strata considered the mineral components and disposition of the rocks, and paid no attention to fossils (Fig. 5). Nevertheless, we should not fool ourselves into believing these investigations naïve or unsophisticated. The plates to be found in the first five volumes of Transactions, published in the decade beginning 1811, are sufficient to demonstrate an analytical richness and precision that suggested a science rapidly advancing without Smith.

Fig. 5. Strata seen through Society eyes: a. John Josiah Conybeare’s (1779-1824) watercolour, ‘Curvature in Killas on the Coast immediately below St. Agnes’ (1813); 
b. MacCulloch’s watercolour, ‘a part of the rock upon which Stirling Castle is built’ (1812) with its strata of ‘two substances’ juxtaposed with Trap;
  c. MacCulloch’s pencil sketch, ‘Curvature of the coal strata near Sandyfoot’ (1809). The Society men saw structure, mineralogy and lithology, and aspired to grand explanation (LDGSL 400, 84, 37 and 18 respectively).

Nor should we expect fossils to dominate descriptions by Smith’s supporters. Smith’s method concerned three determinants: lithology, position and, lastly, fossils, and relied on a belief in a natural succession (Knell 2000, p. 20-23). Fossils were not always needed to resolve matters, nor was it necessary to scientifically describe them; one simply needed to recognise and value them. Once something of the natural order of rocks had been learned, it was possible to follow strata in the lay of the land, or in field relationships. Greenough could follow these strata in the landscape just as well as Smith and his supporters.  Farey, this time firmly Smithian, told Greenough in the same year:

This section will give some faint idea of the thickness & importance of the several Red Marle strata in Britain, for these are not the same strata which regularly [emerge] from under the Lias Clay (producing Gypsum, Salt, & c) & over-lay Coals near Bath; or the same as occur under the Basaltic & Lime Coal Series of Newcastle on Tyne, & produce Gypsum, red sandstone & c; and the task will prove a very arduous one I fear, to distinguish these three or more parts of the Red Marle from each other, in many instances, owing to their anomalous beds, & want of Reliquia [fossils].[45]

He accompanied this statement with a measured section listing 58 strata ranging in thickness from 800 yards to four inches, copied by Farey’s son from data possessed by David Mushett, coal mine proprietor at Coleford, in the Forest of Dean. Again, it is typical of the relationship between practical mining and geological knowledge; Farey was here interested only in geological intelligence, not in improving mining.  

The Society’s map-making was made more effective by the distribution of fragments of the map to be coloured locally. In 1813, for example, Fitton asked for the ‘Skeleton map engraved for the Geol. Soc […] such a portion of one as includes Northamptonshire & some of the adjoining country, on which I may, hereafter, insert what I shall observe.’[46]In his two-way exchanges, Greenough also sent his own colourings of the map – actually maps – out for corroboration. Conybeare, for example, in response to such a request stated on viewing Greenough’s initial attempt, 

In reviewing your maps I find that I differ much from you as to Somerset & Devon. I have enclosed sketches of those counties made out after my own fashion – on one side you will find part of Gloucester & the Nth of Somerset on the other the South of Somerset & East of Devon. My colours being packed up I have endeavoured to make them out as clearly as I could by different sorts of lines.[47]

In another letter referring to these efforts, he writes: 

I am engaged at present in colouring with Buckland’s assistance the contiguous squares of parts of Gloucester Somerset with Dorset & East Devon = from the Outline Map = in proceeding with this work I find that I was myself mistaken in attributing error to Martin’s account of the limestone in the South of the Nailsen Coal Field by Blackwell Barrow & Broadfield downs – which really are mountain lime – & not lias as I have been induced to suppose from their appearing to form a continuation of the ridge on wh. Dundry beacon stands. When my map is finished it will be much at yr. service – that district seemed the most imperfect part of yours.[48]

By means of a friendly and open network of this kind, centred on the Society’s enterprising President, the map progressed as a representation of the Society’s social aspirations.  But it did so for only a short time. Smith was beginning to enter the Society’s thinking. He had first appeared implicitly written into Farey’s communications, some of which came through Banks. Now Smith’s influence became more pervasive and in doing so opened up that controversy from which the Society has never fully escaped. 


Smith’s virus

In the early years of the Society, Smith was situated in a blind spot in the visual apparatus of most of the membership. He was known to them but nevertheless occupied another place in geology – indeed, a different kind of geology – which the Society ultimately recognised as true and important. Before 1813, Smith was considered to possess no novelties. In March 1808, for example, Farey mentions Smith to Greenough in passing, knowing Greenough had been part of a small delegation from the Society that had visited Smith on that day (Torrens 1998b, p. 111). Farey thought Greenough was assembling a complete collection of British fossils and thus assumed that he knew the nature of Smith’s discoveries and how fundamentally they had shaped the organisation of geological collections.[49] On another occasion, in 1811, Thomas Meade, a correspondent of Smith and another of Greenough’s informants, and no less enthusiastic in his support for Greenough than Farey or Conybeare, sought to extract intelligence from Benjamin Richardson’s collections, which had been curated on Smithian principles. He wrote,

I called on Mr Richardson in pursuance of my intention to examine with him & to make a Catalogue of his Fossils of the respective Strata. But he assured me that he had promised Mr Smith not to join or take a part in such a Catalogue; but he will allow me access to his Drawers; which will in some degree answer any purposes altho’ it may increase the trouble, for he might assist me much.[50]

The closing phrase of this quotation suggests that Meade wished to interrogate these collections unobserved. This might be seen as spying whether intended by Meade himself or suggested by Greenough, or motivated by Meade’s somewhat futile attempts to ingratiate himself with Greenough. It is possible that Greenough saw it as morally legitimate, that – as the President of a national society engaged in the free movement of data – he had a right to data. Perhaps he believed Smith’s restrictions irrational or felt Smith’s data unlikely to enter the public domain; he certainly doubted that Smith possessed any views so novel as to warrant protectionism.

Smith’s newly acquired protectiveness may have come about as a result of his earlier contact with the Society or been pricked by his early relationship with John Farey. Farey had, from first meeting Smith in 1801, become his disciple and, at times, his publicist. At the time of their meeting, Farey was a land steward at Woburn (Torrens 1994) and no threat to Smith. But in 1807, he was publishing Smith’s discoveries in Rees’s New Cyclopaedia and had accepted a commission from the Board of Agriculture to undertake a Smithian survey of Derbyshire. Perhaps unthinkingly, he asked Smith for the lines of strata he had recorded in that county (Ford and Torrens 1989). Smith now saw Farey as a ‘scientific pilferer’ (Cox 1942, p. 40) and as a result also realised the consequences of the open communication of his ideas. Farey would publish his first report – on the strata of Derbyshire – in 1811. By, then, he had effectively become a Society man, though not a member.

Smith was not a self-publicist. His omission from much of the surviving correspondence of Greenough is not simply a result of censorship in public discourse. There are continuous series of private letters from individuals who one would have expected to have referred to Smith. Yet Smith is hardly there. Even Farey’s letters make little reference to him. Given the long and copious communications received from others, it is quite easy to understand why Smith should have received such scant attention, particularly if he was not believed. From the outset, the Society’s most active members became incredibly busy with its inquiries, with travelling, with meetings of various kinds, with reading, compilation and so on. This was in addition to busy social and business lives. Theirs was an open and enquiring field of exchange amongst social and Society networks – amongst friends and strangers. It was a visible, particular and part-time network affected by all manner of other cultural influences (Heringman 2009). 

Meanwhile, Smith’s geology was spreading, virus-like, as a whisper and as reportage. All those to whom he spoke became infected, and he knew it.[51] Yet, Smith’s ideas make no real appearance in the correspondence of the Society’s key ‘inquirers’ before the early 1810s. The change comes, however, not long after the publication of Townsend’s book in 1813. Here, it was not the adulation Townsend heaped on Smith that first caught the attention of those who read it but rather the correctness of many of Townsend’s facts where he had used Smith’s methods. The effect was doubtless helped by a paper on Derbyshire strata by Farey presented to the Society in that year; his report having already been in print for two years. Conybeare, for example, is suddenly transformed in 1813. It came at a time when a visit to Oxford by Greenough had done much to excite the ‘Members of the Rag Formation’. As Conybeare told him, 

Since your visit the Geological ardour produced by it has blazed forth [?] with such vehemence. Scarcely a day has passed in which I have not undertaken either on foot or horseback some expedition to explore the mysteries of hidden junctions & compel reluctant mountains to reveal their whole History. Shotover was the first to yield to my prowess […] the key to all the neighbouring country.[52]

But Shotover’s yielding owed little to Greenough’s science and everything to Smith, whose name goes unmentioned: a ‘rubbly limestone […] beautifully characterized by all its distinguishing fossils. These are also contained in the concretions of the Sand beneath which may therefore be considered as the lowest member of this formation.’ Drawing upon Townsend (and perhaps intelligence from the Bagley Wood coal trial (Torrens pers. comm.)), in this single letter, Conybeare makes frequent mention of fossil characterization and in doing so reveals what was for him an entirely new way of thinking. 

Conybeare’s work had a direct impact on Fitton who, since arriving in Northamptonshire, was sure that the county could only be understood as a continuation of strata seen elsewhere. From 1814, he had joined the Oxford club in the field where the possibilities of this form of geologizing were plainly obvious: ‘The beautiful regularity of the long continued line, as it were, of coast, which is seen from Shotover hill, at the termination of the chalk strata to the east of Oxford, has no doubt powerfully assisted the zealous geologists of that University, in making converts to their favourite pursuites’ ([Fitton] 1817 p73). But it seems likely that Fitton had also been influenced by Parkinson or by Farey, as he told Greenough in 1812, before the publication of Townsend’s book and without need of explanation, ‘Of petrefactions (or rather fossil organized remains) there are great abundance & variety in this country – Some characteristic of the strata, & others interesting in themselves.’ [53]

Townsend’s advocacy of Smith had been pre-empted by founder member, James Parkinson, who in the first volume of Transactions, in 1811, wrote of Smith: ‘he was the first who noticed, that certain fossils are peculiar to, and are only found in, particular strata; and first ascertained the constancy in the order of superposition, and the continuity of strata of our island’. In doing so, he signalled that Cuvier and Brongniart were by comparison, latecomers (Parkinson 1811, p325; on Parkinson, see Lewis 2009a; 2009b). Parkinson’s assertion of the importance of fossils correlates well with a decision on the part of the Society to establish a committee to investigate them. Greenough, in his reflections late in life, would forget that Smith’s ideas were involved, preferring to see the committee as asserting the Society’s independent interest in fossils. Webster’s fieldwork on the Isle of Wight was also furthering the cause of fossil-based geology, and Webster thought it influential within the Society (Webster 1814).

 What is certain is that Smith’s ideas entered the Society’s walls at this time, not with a new membership of so-called ‘young turks’ (Morrell 2005, p. 83) but by the conversion of long-time supporters, including two founder members. Full recognition of Smith’s achievement came with the publication of his map in 1815: the Society was utterly changed by it. All who saw it were amazed by the achievement. 

William Phillips, the Society’s publisher – and publisher of numerous individual works by members – had himself compiled a number of books on geology. In 1816, in his general Outline of Mineralogy and Geology, he wrote, without reference to Smith or Cuvier: 

Every part of the globe distinctly bears the impress of these great and terrible events. The appearances of change and ruin are stamped on every feature. Change and ruin by which not a particle of the creation has been lost, but which have been repeated, and are distinctly marked by the genera and species of the organic remains they enclose.

Thus, those fossils and petrifactions which heretofore were carefully collected as curiosities, now possess a value greater than as mere curiosities. They are to the globe what coins are to the history of its inhabitants; they denote the period of revolution; they ascertain at least comparative dates.

(Phillips 1816, p. 189)

To this, the second edition of this work, he appended with the author’s permission a miniature version of Smith’s map (Fig. 6b). Its lines, however, were made to both simplify and extend those on Smith’s map using information published in the Society’s Transactions and elsewhere; this was no mere replica but a reflection of a continuing attempt to move beyond the limitations of Smith’s lines. Smith was also improving his map at this time, each version he had coloured seemingly an improvement on the last (Eyles & Eyles 1938) (Fig. 6a). Like Fitton, Phillips was in awe of Smith’s achievement. If it was to inspire Fitton to become a historian so it inspired Phillips to produce the first edition of his A Selection of Facts from the Best Authorities Arranged so as to Form an Outline of the Geology of England and Wales (1818) rather than a third edition of his more general mineralogical work. And while Phillips’ Outline of Mineralogy and Geology had been based upon the ideas of Jameson, Cuvier, Aikin and papers in the Society’s Transactions, his later Selection of Facts, or Outline of the Geology of England and Wales, as it would become known, followed the non-theoretical philosophy of Smith who Phillips claimed as an original observer. In this volume, too, Phillips added a version of Smith’s map (Fig. 6c), this time extended still further, and in his description of the strata he took care to list their fossil contents. Conybeare responded to this book by flooding Phillips with new intelligence, and by this means acquired the position of senior ‘Editor’ for an increasingly necessary revision, published under the shortened title and in larger format as Outlines of the Geology of England and Wales in 1822. This book gave extended voice to William Phillips’ admiration for Smith, but in it Smith’s map (in Phillips’s improved form) was replaced by the map to which Conybeare had made such a significant contribution: Greenough’s (Fig. 6d and 6e). 

Fig. 6. The evolving geological map of England and Wales. After Smith’s pioneering attempt, all subsequent versions become genetically blurred. a. William Smith’s (1815) large scale map (Courtesy of the National Museums of Wales). Smith, while in competition with Greenough’s forthcoming map, repeatedly enhanced his own map.
b. William Phillips’s (1816) small version of Smith’s map incorporating Phillips’s distillations of knowledge taken in part from the Society’s publications.
c. William Phillips’s (1818) similarly extended version of Smith’s map as used in an entirely different and very Smithian volume.
d. George Greenough’s (1819) large scale map which aimed to be superior to Smith’s (Courtesy of the National Museum of Wales).
e. Conybeare and Phillips’s (1822) small version of Greenough’s map in which some of Greenough’s more speculative interpretations have been edited out by Conybeare (Conybeare & Phillips 1822, unpaginated preliminary notice). 

Even by the beginning of 1814, Greenough’s map had been well advanced, at least according to its author. As Fitton comments, ‘I have great pleasure in learning that your Geological map of England, which will doubtless be a very valuable acquisition to mineralogists, has made such progress, and I shall be very happy if it were in my own power to contribute to its completion.’[54] Greenough’s role was in part that of compiler, just as William Phillips had ‘compiled’ his own geological books from the works of others without full reference. But Phillips’ admitted that his books were for beginners – for popular digestion – not claims to any kind of scientific merit. In the early 1810s, however, the boundary between the plagiarised and original was not clearly drawn, and many understood that the science would progress in steps involving successive revision and improvement. However, such ‘understanding’ stretched social relations to the point of snapping and the Society’s previously highly effective cooperative spirit evaporated. I shall come to this shortly but first it is necessary to examine its most extreme manifestation: Farey’s war with the Society. Were he and Smith catalysts in the Society’s social undoing?

Farey’s war

In his relationship with the Society, Farey had always been self-assured and very much his own man. He was in tune with the Society’s new project and its search for system and theory. He was no agent or minion of Smith or Greenough. His relationship with the latter blossomed and was going splendidly until he came to submit a paper on Derbyshire to the Society’s Transactions. Greenough advised Farey on the first draft, suggesting some judicious cutting and editing but this did little to save Farey from the disaster which befell his paper on its submission.[55] Council wished to ‘shorten it’; the copy returned containing ‘an abridgment of the whole & several transpositions & omissions’.[56] At least one of these abridgements was of material Greenough had asked Farey to research; now Farey doubted the messages he was receiving.[57] More serious was the manner in which it was proposed to revise his paper as it completely disenfranchised the author:

Much as I see reason to disapprove the work adopted by your Geological Council (if I rightly understand it), of referring my paper to be new cast throughout, & reduced as 4 to 1 in length, by strangers to me & my subject, without their being directed, to confer first with me, on the best & least objectionable mode of abridging it; or, what on all accounts was most proper, to have requested you to so confer with me.[58]

He begged to have his paper serialised instead.[59] Despite implicating Greenough in the conspiracy, Farey remained on good terms with him. Greenough loaned Farey books to improve his work and Farey offered some of his own in return. Farey visited Greenough’s house and Greenough Farey’s, all the while engrossed in discussing the stratification of England. Although never possessing a relationship of the kind Greenough reserved for his social equals, like his Oxonian friends, it is clear that the two men held common interests and mutually benefitted from their relationship. But beyond this relationship there was much ill feeling. Henry Warburton, who was behind the revision, felt its heat most of all. He told Greenough, 

He seems to be angry beyond measure. Perhaps if I were to meet him at your house at breakfast on Thursday morning, something might be done. I do not wish to bring him, as he lives on the fruits of his labour, out of the way to my part of the town, as this may form a new subject of accusation. Otherwise I would beg you to meet him.[60]

Warburton was at a loss: ‘I can make nothing of the man; at one time pacified, then flying off in a tangent’.[61] In early June 1813, with Greenough’s mediation, Farey started to believe that the dispute might find satisfactory resolution but this turned out to be a false hope.[62] Farey withdrew of his paper (although Warburton felt the paper, having been read, was now the property of the Society).[63] Warburton asked Greenough to explain matters to Farey’s patron, Banks, who had been behind the Derbyshire commission but on reflection thought Farey angry with Banks too. Farey had, however, been as reasonable – certainly with Greenough – as he could allow, never permitting this unpleasant business to come between them. But in the end he understood that the Society’s desire to take absolute control of his paper jeopardised his career as a mineral surveyor and geological writer. 

In the middle of this debacle, while still on good terms, Greenough lent Farey a copy of Townsend’s book, in which Greenough had made notes in the margin. Farey unthinkingly picked up where Greenough had left off. While complimentary of Townsend’s knowledge of the geology of Wiltshire, Somerset and Gloucestershire, Farey found the rest of the book contaminated with errors, poor illustration and ludicrous theories: 

Poor Moses, of whom so ridiculous a parade is made in his title & c, seems after all most unfairly dealt by the primitive waters, under which the Strata were formed, & dislocated, & c, are confounded with the Deluge which Moses describes, as happening long after this, & after Men & all our present races of Beings had long existed on the earth, tho’ such confounding is in violation of every sentence that is handed to us as Moses’ description of his Deluge, which I maintain to be an object of faith or belief only, and incapable of the least philosophical proof […] and that this work cannot fail, I think, laying Moses open, to more marked neglect or contempt by practical Geologists & Philosophers, than any which has preceeded it: the facts of the Strata are utterly inconsistent with any material convulsions or violent operations upon them since Man and his contemporary Beings were created, and it is only false theories, this & De Luc’s, that pretend so.[64]  

Farey was not unusual in openly ridiculing Jean André de Luc’s (1727-1817) Christian interpretations of Earth history (Rudwick 2005, pp. 150-8; also, Torrens 1998c). Indeed, Greenough bracketed Farey’s most entertaining remarks possibly for reading at a Society meeting; the Society men were not above jovial acts of ridicule. It is more telling that Farey appended a ‘p.s.’ to his letter: ‘If you think it right to communicate the whole or any extracts from this letter, to Mr Townsend, I have not the least objection.’[65] Of course, he may have written this aware that Greenough’s notes confirmed his view. However, according to one obituary, Farey was ‘of very retiring habits; rarely mixing in society’ (Ford and Torrens 1989). He certainly had an unconstrained pugilistic tendency which, when combined with his honest openness and lack of tact, tended to undermine the clear-sightedness and intellectual sophistication of his message. As a critic he lacked that guarded professionalism possessed by Greenough and his gentlemen friends. Greenough, for example, received a similar but rather more understanding review of Townsend’s book from Conybeare, who, after cataloguing a profusion of errors, dealt with his subject more delicately: 

Notwithstanding this mixture of Error & nonsense I still think that much may be gathered from the book. Many of the observations & facts stated in it appear perfectly accurate & by no means devoid of interest or importance. Geology in [its] present state must not be fastidious or capricious but thankfully receive any contribution of authentic facts in however slovenly a form they may be presented. To indicate the more favorable part of my opinion of the Pewsey Geologist I would particularly cite the chapter on the thickness of the strata and that on springs. This last strikes me as containing a new and ingenious application of Geological investigation.[66]

From 1813, with his paper sunk, Farey’s relationship with the Society took a most remarkable turn. The Society, and Greenough in particular, now became the focus of this most sharp-tongued of critics.[67] He now reflected on his past relationship, reinterpreting the intelligence he had freely given to the Society as spying, and turning Smith into an offensive weapon. He had, of course, seen no difficulty in borrowing from Smith himself or of ridiculing the efforts of others, but now he turned his eloquence in vitriol on the Society:

instead of the least patronage or countenance being given to Mr. Smith, every means, direct and indirect, were soon resorted to, by a leading Individual [Greenough] therein, in particular, to obtain his materials and delineate them on a new Map, pretended, at first, to be for the private use of the Society; but after it had twice or thrice been copied, to correct its first egregious errors, as new materials were quickly collected, with inconceivably less pains or cost than Mr. Smith’s materials were originally obtained, and I was repeatedly applied to for contribution to this new Map, I began to suspect, that all was not right, and determined on putting the question plainly, whether the design was not really entertained, of publishing this rival Map?, and this not being longer denied, then, whether it was intended in such publication, to make the acknowledgements so justly due to Mr. Smith, for his long priority in the research, and his materials, obtained as above mentioned?, when I was unblushingly told, that theirs being a Map begun and altogether made on Wernerian principles!, no such acknowledges as I asked, would be made!!

(Farey 1815a, p. 337)

Farey claimed in public that he had been assured repeatedly in 1811, when supplying unpublished materials belonging to Smith, that the Society’s map would not be published (Farey 1820, p. 380) and thus not compete with Smith’s. How Farey came to show Smith’s unpublished materials to Greenough in 1811 is unknown, as we know that Smith was highly protective of his data in that year. Farey pushed forward his advantage, hoping to pre-form opinion against the successor map: ‘so much confidence that the fear of the exposure I could make, and the consequent shame and disgrace that must attach to the actors herein, would restrain them, that I had determined to delay submitting the present statements to the public’ (Farey 1815a, p. 338). Greenough remained silent and did not answer the charge. Fitton, however, was moved to act, piqued by Farey’s savaging of Kidd’s Geological Essay (1815) which carried a dedication to Greenough.

Which, I would ask, is most to be deplored, the ignorance still prevailing in the chief Seats of Learningamong us, as to the most obvious Geological facts around them?, or the pitiful design manifested in Dr. K’s Book, in the revival of these excusable mistakes of former great Men, of depriving a deserving, although non-academical Individual [Smith], of the merited rewards of his labours?

(Farey 1815, p. 340)

It was not to defend Greenough, however, that Fitton acted, but rather to protect his Oxford friend who had earlier supported him in his attempts to obtain a lucrative medical appointment in Northampton.[68] Determined to ascertain whether the claims made for Smith were true, Fitton turned up at Smith’s house in Buckingham Street, London, to probe the surveyor about his past doings, taking in the process ‘a few desultory notes’ (Farey 1818a; 1818c, p. 184n). Neither Smith nor Farey, who was there, knew anything of this mysterious stranger but Farey aided his desire to separate the discoveries of Werner and Smith by uncovering details of the latter’s past. Farey did not know then that it was Fitton’s intention to use this information against him in a defence of Kidd and he could hardly believe it when he found out. Fitton, however, chose not to pursue his quarry and the review he wrote surprised Farey to such an extent that he was willing to overlook Fitton’s criticism of him as an advocate for Smith: ‘But the patronage of this gentleman is really a little too vehement, and of such a sort, that if we wished to ensure the failure of a valuable performance, we should begin by recommending it to his protection’ ([Fitton] 1818, p. 312). Indeed, Fitton had earlier claimed Smith’s great map, A Delineation of the Strata of England and Wales (1815), as ‘a work which it would be unjust to mention, without adding, that it is of great and original value; indeed, regarding it as the production of an unassisted individual, of most extraordinary merit’ ([Fitton] 1817, p. 71). Fitton had, to his apparent surprise, become a supporter of Smith, impressed by his map and his other recent publications. He recommended that the Society take up Smith’s project, with its difficult and barbaric names, and refine it ([Fitton] 1818, p. 336), believing that Smith’s nomenclature could be improved using the ‘proper scientific names of the substances composing the strata’ rather than a terminology intelligible only to locals. Fitton also thought Smith had chosen an impractical scale: ‘The scale of the map, five miles to an inch (the whole occupying a space of 5½ feet by 7½), is, we think, considerably too large. It would have been much better if the general map had been more portable, and the minuter details left for separate maps of counties: and, if a second edition be published, we recommend the adoption of this plan’ ([Fitton] 1818, p. 336; see also Eyles  & Eyles 1938, p. 208; Sheppard 1917, p. 161-3, for discussion of a smaller version of Smith’s map was published by Cary in 1820). 

The third volume of Farey’s General View of the Agriculture of Derbyshire arrived in print in 1817, before Fitton’s review. A report concerned with sheep, roads and canals, Farey used its preface to launch a scathing attack on ‘a Geognostic Society’ and its thefts and deceptions:

the principle part of his [Smith’s] hard-earned materials, having been surreptitiously obtained, and the progress of a rival Map of our Strata, unblushingly announced, by the same Party, while his was engraving and colouring! – and since its completion, an extensive sale of it has been prevented, such as was necessary to repay the outlay of Engraving and Colouring […] by the sinister arts employed to under-value the same, and dissuade, even the few who are disposed to purchase a Map of the Strata, to wait for the improved Map of a ei-devant Member of Parliament! [Greenough] Who, it may be proper to observe, entered on this pursuit years after Mr. Smith had, not only commenced, but brought his Map almost to its present state of approach to perfection, had freely shewn it to hundreds, and was soliciting Subscribers’ names, for its publication.

(Farey 1817b, p. ix)

It is true that Smith’s map was well advanced and known to literati like Banks in 1802 (Torrens 1994, p. 59) but now Farey’s rage against the Society embraced every aspect of its being. In Farey’s eyes, the Society could do no good. He complained of the Society’s ‘refusing to publish’ and detention of his paper, and of the Society’s treatment of his friend, ‘the Fossilist and Petrifaction-Worker of Castleton’, Elias Hall’s model of strata which was so colourful ‘as to raise a laugh, by the far-fetched and contemptible joke, that “a tray of Guts and Garbage in a Fishmonger’s or Poulterer’s Shop,” rather than any thing else, was called to mind!’ (Farey 1817b, p. viii; Farey 1815b, p. x). The Society’s corrupting influence seemed to pervade the whole science:

The conduct of the gentleman [a ‘London professor’, who Torrens has identified as the chemist, William Thomas Brande (1788-1866)] now alluded to, has even been still worse towards my friend Mr. Smith, whose Geological Map has been in the [Royal] Institution Library since its publication, and during the delivery of several of the Lectures alluded to, was actually hung up at the back of the Lecturer, and made the diagram of his local descriptions of English Mineralogy and Geology; and yet, in two volumes which this “learned Professor” has since put form, in 1816 and 1817, detailing the Geological facts of England, not the least mention or allusion is made to Mr. Smith or his labours, through the last 28 years!!

(Farey 1818c, p. 186)

Perhaps at Smith’s request, Farey took a rather different tack in November 1817, after he attended Sir Joseph Banks’ Conversazione with Smith. A group of those present met at Farey’s house to draft a chronology of Smith’s discoveries. Fitton was invited to join them but declined (Farey 1818c, p. 184n); according to Farey, he just disappeared ([Farey] 1818a, p. 174) – but Fitton had no time for Farey’s abusive crusade. Nevertheless, it had been Fitton’s initial enquiries at Buckingham Street that had stimulated Farey to gather together a potted history in the first place ([Farey] 1818a, p. 173). This was published anonymously and as objective facts early the next year in the Philosophical Magazine and Annals of Philosophy ([Farey] 1818a; 1818b). A duplicated effort, it revealed that even the publishers, who probably liked Farey’s rather scandalous contributions, were tiring of Farey’s relentless and well-known campaign. It was no longer news; their whole readership, if not the whole of England, knew of Smith’s plight.

Greenough finally broke his silence in 1819, answering Farey’s accusations in a polite and understated manner, which said something of how practiced he was in that slippery kind of argument and diplomacy prevalent even then in Westminster. He presented himself as a modest man, who was willing to admit to his mistakes and to put in the public domain his appreciation of Smith. That appreciation, however, was for the man and not his science:

Your correspondent considers me, in common with many other persons, actuated by feelings of hostility towards Mr. Smith. Now my feelings towards that gentleman are directly the reverse. I respect him for the important services he has rendered to geology, and I esteem him for the example of dignity, meekness, modesty, and candour, which he continually, though ineffectually, exhibits to his self-appointed champion.

In Greenough’s view, Farey was merely a blind advocate of Smith’s method, unable to prove the truth of what Smith proposed:

[Farey] has examined Derbyshire with very laudable industry; will he take the trouble to mention, what the fossils are, by which he is enabled to distinguish the different limestones in that county, or the different sandstones, or the different shales? There will be time to discuss the originality of the doctrine when its truth is established. If its truth cannot be established, I beg very respectfully to ask Mr. Farey, whether he can hope to exalt the character of his teacher by proving him the first discoverer of that which does not exist?

(Greenough 1819b)

It was a masterful response. Given all that Farey had written, it was a telling criticism to suggest that Farey’s groundbreaking 532 page geological report (Farey 1811) did not illustrate Smithian principles. Greenough knew this work well and knew that Farey would not be able to easily muster a defence from it even if it was commonly believed that its completion relied upon Smith’s teachings (Torrens 1994, p. 62). Indeed, Greenough knew that, but for a handful of mentions of Smith, it espoused a geology which seemed little different from that practised by his other informants. It may have been the most detailed report on British strata published to date but it was not an exposition on the importance of fossils. But, as I have explained, the Smithian method did not rely upon palaeontological description, merely on indication, memory and recollection. However, while Greenough’s accusations were in press, Farey published a list of fossils and their stratigraphic positions in the magazine in which Greenough’s article was to appear. If that did not pull the carpet from beneath Greenough’s feet, then the publication of William Phillips’s Selection of Facts the previous year should have done so, for it also illustrated the specific occurrences of fossils (Phillips 1818; Farey 1819). 

Greenough may have looked at the situation and thought he, rather than Smith, was the victim. Farey’s attacks were aimed at Greenough’s philosophy, friends, Society, morality, honesty, class and even his ambition. This was not simply a defence of Smith; Farey was out for revenge. In the manner of his arguments, Farey captured nothing of the man he defended: Smith’s affable good humour had won him friends and admirers in every quarter; Farey was, by comparison, isolated by his anger. Greenough could look at the Society’s huge efforts since 1807 to record and map the nation’s geology, and legitimately see the world differently. The Society was in receipt of many maps, huge correspondence, and numerous reports from its members and supporters. Its officers and correspondents had travelled widely. Whatever Greenough had acquired of Smith’s may well have had no striking place in this assemblage of data, and no-one else in that earlier period seemed to be making individual claims on the basis of their contribution to Greenough’s plan. It was true, too, that his efforts embodied a belief that Wernerian principles would enable rocks to be understood, correlated and mapped. Yet, many of his correspondents had without acknowledgement converted themselves into Smithian geologists – using fossils and believing in regular succession. 

Soon Smith’s map was in the public domain, and who could tell what the contemporary public might make of Greenough’s very similar map when it finally appeared? How can one defend against charges of plagiarism in the production of maps? Greenough was in a difficult position and Farey knew it. Greenough’s only defence was to do better. Indeed, if he could compile an even better map using his more abundant resources, was he not morally obliged to do so for the sake of science? Or was he morally obligated not to compete with a map produced by a single man, as Farey claimed? On every front, science advanced by the first principle. Reputations were made by refuting the claims of others, and by mere improvement. Nearly everyone in this new geological world knew it, participated in it, fell victim to it, and despised it. Nevertheless, it gave the field huge positive energy. 

Whatever Greenough felt, he kept it to himself, at least until the publication of his map, at which point he could hardly avoid answering the charges against him. He did so in his Memoir of a Geological Map of England (1820). In doing so, he used that same political ability to disguise what had really happened. He would not answer every charge, only those where others might corroborate his view or about which only he would know. We cannot read into this a belief on Greenough’s part that he had acted unethically but we can infer that, in the changed world in which he finally published his map, history needed careful curatorship if it was not to generate a false impression. Only in this memoir did he give his map’s chronology, admitting to sketching a number of geological maps from 1808, each with a single stratum marked upon it. When these were presented to the Society in 1812 (the year after Farey said he had received assurances that the Society possessed no plans to publish a map) he was ‘requested […] to construct a new map of England upon a larger scale’. This, he admits, was the point of origin of the published map. Greenough admitted that he knew of Smith’s projected map from 1804 but exclaimed

but I appeal to all the friends of Mr. Smith, with whom I have conversed upon the subject, and especially to the individual who complains of my conduct, whether he, and they did not, for a long time afterwards, in consequence of a variety of circumstances which it is unnecessary to detail, consider its completion, and still more its publication, hopeless. In the belief that the work had been virtually abandoned by Mr. Smith, it was undertaken by me […] it had been more than a twelvemonth in the hands of the engraver when Mr. Smith published his […] but I do not think it [Smith’s map] of a nature to render the publication of mine superfluous. I do not admit that any consideration of justice or delicacy required me either to abstain from constructing my map, in the first instance, or, when partly engraved, to request permission of the Geological Society to withdraw it. Mr. Smith’s map was not seen by me till after its publication, and the use I have since made of it has been very limited. The two maps agree in many respects, not because the one has been copied from the other, but because both are correct; and they differ in many, not from an unworthy apprehension on my part of being deemed a plagiarist, but because it is impossible that the views, the opportunities, the reasonings of two persons engaged on the same subject should be invariably the same .

(Greenough 1820, p. 4)

Now it may appear from the convenience of the dates and Greenough’s wording that he was hiding behind a Society façade; that he was conducting work that had been requested of him, when as President we presume him all powerful. But yet the map committee and Council did indeed ‘request’ Greenough to undertake tasks, even such menial tasks as mounting maps on canvas.[69] We do not, however, possess any record of the Council asking Greenough to prepare his map. But in 1812, the map committee did decide to meet every two weeks.[70] It made its Secretary Thomas Webster, who later that year was appointed curator and draughtsman; it was Webster who drew Greenough’s map. The meetings appear to have been unminuted but there is no reason to doubt the timing of Greenough’s decision to proceed, regardless of the strength of any independent request that he should do so. While Farey’s indignation concerning Greenough’s change of plans was justified, Greenough claimed that he desired to be the author of such a map from the outset of the Society. It was a personal ambition and for very human reasons he doubtless saw Smith as a difficulty to be overcome; Farey had earlier shown his own disregard for the feelings of Smith. That ambition seems to have risen to a point of open competition by 5 December 1814 when Greenough’s map was sufficiently complete to employ the services of an engraver.[71] The stubs of money paid and received for 1815 reveal that Webster was then very active in drawing, and Greenough active in promoting, the map, in the year in which Smith published. Smith’s first complete map was produced in February, with full production beginning in August (Eyles & Eyles 1938, p. 210). Those early maps went directly to his many subscribers, but future sales must certainly have been hindered by the news that an improved map was close to completion. Farey’s claims concerning this competition, then, were also justified and it may have been this which motivated Smith to continue to improve his own map with each colouring. But what could Greenough do? The work had certainly been done. If he had been faced with the competition of another gentleman, society or company, there would be no question of Greenough quitting. But the difficulty here was that the arguments were not about science but morality. It was a David and Goliath battle in which the little man always has the moral advantage (who ever cared about Goliath whatever his moral claims?). Greenough never asked to be cast in this oppositional role, his very being reconfigured as the antithesis of the exemplary character and achievement of the man with whom he found himself in competition. Yet Greenough no longer lived in that convivial world that was once the preserve of geology. Doing geology was now a cutthroat business; the Society had been consumed by a fever of competition.

If Greenough’s map alone was not sufficient to finish off Smith’s when it was published in 1819, William Conybeare, in his contribution to his and William Phillips’s Outlines of the Geology of England and Wales (1822) seemed determined to see it superseded. Although Conybeare continued to dispute some of Greenough’s interpretations, as he had done during the map’s preparation, he nevertheless included Greenough’s map in the book (suitably modified). In doing so, he hid behind a façade of objectivity and disinterestedness, and unashamedly promoted it:

Subsequently to the publication of Mr. Smith’s map in 1819, another on nearly the same scale was published by Mr. Greenough; the execution of this is more minute and delicate, and the details more exactly laboured; the general configuration of the surface of the country, its hills and vallies, are represented with far more precision than had previously been attempted in any general map of the island,—points which did not enter into the construction of Mr. Smith’s map; and many of the imperfections of the former are removed; to this therefore we have referred as a general standard throughout the work, and have therefore studiously noted every remaining incorrectness which a careful collation of it in the course of our enquiries with materials derived from subsequent observation has enabled us to detect; from this also we have copied the slight outline map prefixed to this volume, with a trifling change in the system of colouring which a different view of the division of a part of the carboniferous series of rocks has obliged us to introduce.

(Conybeare in Conybeare & Phillips 1822, p. xlvii)

Conybeare had, despite only a few pages earlier singing the praises of Smith, now undermined him in the sale of his map. He had not only made Greenough’s map the natural accompaniment to this, the new cornerstone of British descriptive geology, but also asserted that Smith’s map simply would not do. From 1822, only a fool would buy it. Greenough had his supporters in influential places; after all, the Society had begun as a network of the distinguished. Conybeare told Greenough in 1825, ‘We have now a very flourishing institution at Bristol of wh by the way I took care that you shd be early made an honorary member hoping thereby to attract a copy of your map as one of our members has given us Smith’s.’[72]

We cannot doubt that geology had become politicised. Data once shared was now to be protected. Consider, then, how things changed for Smith and his supporters. Smith was then a survivor of an older generation, who had developed his ideas in a thinly populated rural world where aristocratic landowner and middling man came into contact and collaboration. In that world, his geological knowledge alone was of limited use to others because it supported a practical occupation; knowing the principles was not enough to supplant this field-experienced surveyor. Equally, the interests of leisured gentlemen naturalists were hardly likely to interfere with Smith’s business ambitions. However, this tussle over maps took place after geology had been transformed into a fashionable enterprise capable of generating personal reputation and income in new ways. In no small measure did Smith’s own publications permit the Society men to see this potential in the science for they saw these as indicative and preliminary rather than definitive. They could see progress beyond them and thus locate a laudable goal. There were at the time numerous mineralogical books in circulation which differed little in content, though each author doubtless thought he had advanced the subject and its dissemination in some way. Why not, then, multiple geological maps? If we lived in this nepotistic world of favour, where reputation was everything and poverty everywhere, where all endlessly pursued elevation and the competitive thrust of life was widely felt, how differently might we view the ambiguous boundaries of plagiarism, compilation and incremental advance – particularly as the rules of the scientific game were far from agreed? 

It was Eyles and Eyles (1938, p. 212) who first wondered why the Society had not simply aided Smith in the production of his map. The answer should be apparent from what has already been written: Smith was at first doubted, disbelieved and considered unlikely to complete; he was later simply a competitor in an already competitive world. Gentlemen were not inclined to wholly fund such projects. The established mode of using subscription to progress an expensive project could have proven successful in the case of Smith’s map – he had an ample list of subscribers – had not a series of unfortunate circumstances delayed its completion and later interfered with its sale. However, balancing demand and the high production costs of illustrated works proved difficult and most of Smith publications failed to reach completion. As gentlemen funded their own social and scientific advancement – and many struggled to do so – there was a presumption against posts and support which fostered an individual’s advance at the expense of others. There were exceptions, of course, and even Greenough found himself defending paid curatorship against the jealous attacks of self-funded individuals. It was a complex competitive and cutthroat world which legitimised selfish individualism.

The Society’s fever

From the mid-1810s, the Society had become increasingly embroiled in territorial politics affecting fame, reputation and income. This need not be solely inferred from actions; the actors in this drama said so overtly and almost to a man. By 1815, it was becoming increasingly possible to imagine the production of a highly profitable geological text. William Phillips’s compilations were one manifestation of this; Arthur Aikin’s A Manual of Mineralogy (1814) was yet another; and Kidd’s Geological Essay (1815) still another. Indeed, the competition was becoming so fierce it was difficult to keep ahead of the game, and Kidd, for example, found himself pre-empted on several points by Cuvier and de Luc and could only feebly claim to have drawn his own conclusions before reading theirs (Kidd 1815, p. v).

Kidd’s Essay was the culmination of years of summer fieldwork which he had undertaken to support his ‘mineralogical’ (geological) lectures. But he long desired giving up those lectures and in November 1814, having completed his last fieldtrip, he did so. The publication of his book was his final act: ‘In offering this Essay to the public, I take a final leave of the pursuit of Mineralogy’ (Kidd 1815, p. viii). His quiet exit, however, was far from painless, and the pain came not only from Farey’s review. He had asked Conybeare and Buckland if either would replace him. Conybeare declined but Buckland accepted. Kidd, however, was unprepared for the political consequences of his decision. Having abdicated his power to Buckland, Buckland now reconfigured the world that had once been Kidd’s. He now progressed his own lecture course without ever discussing it with Kidd; Kidd had openly discussed his ideas. Buckland also closed the museum door which Kidd had always left open. When in the summer vacation Kidd requested a key, Buckland was hesitant; Kidd had to remind him that it was a public collection. Buckland, however, was determined to protect his materials knowing that Kidd had attended his lectures. Protecting knowledge in a world increasingly populated with able and aspiring geologists was a new problem which became apparent around 1815. The emergent science still had everything to say, and all in the geological community vied to say it. The world was shifting from open collaboration and sharing of information to closed and competitive possession. Yet the culture of compilation which fed upon that earlier cooperative world could not be so easily displaced and Buckland’s fear of plagiarism was a fair response. Kidd was clearly distressed by his disempowerment and opened his heart to Greenough, telling him to burn the letter once he had read it.[73] Still only a young man, Kidd’s premature departure from geology enabled his return to a full-time interest in anatomy where he continued a highly successful and profitable career. 

At the time of his departure, then, Kidd felt the competition of a friend who feared plagiarism while his Essay did the rounds chased by Farey’s assertion that he had knowingly plagiarised Smith. It was not that Kidd was a usurper of other people’s material but that the rules had changed. This change in the way the science was socialised caught others in its trap, including Smith, Greenough and Farey. Actions, values and contexts which once seemed so right now lacked compatibility. The fever now spread throughout the geological community. A pencil draft of a letter by Greenough shows that he and Fitton had come head-to-head over a project to write ‘a popular work illustrating the first principles of geology’, or, as Fitton preferred, an ‘Elements of Geology’. Fitton had reluctantly taken up the project in 1816 in order to relieve his financial pressures. A trip home to Dublin that year relieved that pressure but not before the damage had been done.[74] Greenough, too, thought the project a money-spinner; it seems one could never have enough money. Intrigue had then begun between them, with Buckland implicated, and Fitton in the awkward position of having borrowed a large number of Greenough’s books in order, apparently, to supplant him in the project.[75] Greenough accused Fitton of competing, but then giving up and urging Greenough’s close friend Buckland to take up the plan, in full knowledge that it would interfere with Greenough’s ambitions. Fitton defended himself by telling Greenough that his conversation with Buckland arose accidentally, and referred to the publication of Buckland’s lectures. However, in 1817, Fitton (1817, p 93) had in print, implicitly and anonymously, suggested that such a work would not arise from the Society but from lectureships in mineralogy at Oxford, Cambridge, and the Dublin Society, or professorships in natural history at Dublin and Edinburgh. It would, he said, answer the questions: ‘First, Is there any certain order of succession in the rock formations? – and, Secondly, What is the series?’ In 1817, he still desired that mineralogical logic, believing the book would come from the kind of ‘analyses’ that had produced such great advances in chemistry and mineralogy. His ideal model for this book was ‘Dr Thomson’s admirable System of Chemistry’.[76] Fitton, and apparently everyone in the Society, thought Greenough was merely writing a memoir to his geological map which would only include an introduction discussing the principles.[77] Greenough was, however, working on his sceptical Critical Examination(1819) and drawing upon the counsel of his long-time friend, Henry Warburton, to negotiate his way through that ‘chaos of philosophies’. Warburton, however, doubted Greenough’s capacity to do this negotiating and said of an early draft: 

Had I written a similar work myself I do not know that I should have condescended to notice with so much compliance? many absurd and inconclusive reasonings which have sprung from the hand of Geological zealots; and I should perhaps have endeavoured to distinguish in more pointed manner those arguments which are valid and conclusive, by whatever sort[?] produced, from those which rest upon weak analysis; I should have treated Strata with somewhat more respect; less sceptically & more practically;[78]

Thus while they fought for the right to address this great opportunity, desiring money and reputation, neither Fitton nor Greenough was really up to the task. And no one seemed to be openly conversing on what they were doing until a spreading rumour or conflict of interests forced them to do so.

The feud between Greenough and Conybeare, which erupted in January 1823, was nearly identical, with Buckland again implicated. By now, these disputes could be imaged as territorial. For Conybeare and Greenough that territory was European (i.e. non-British) geology. Conybeare claimed this as a right, having read up on the subject in 1814 when the country was still at war, and before any savants, including Greenough, had entered the Continent, though Greenough did so in that year. From this Conybeare constructed a geological section of Europe which was still on display in Buckland’s museum. Although it contained errors, he had communicated his map to Greenough in 1814. Now, however, Conybeare had heard via Buckland that Greenough planned to publish a work on the same subject. Conybeare claimed he was still working on his book, nearly nine years after his initial interest. It was commonplace in these disputes to believe that once one had produced a work of some kind, an individual automatically obtained a God-given right to possess that territory. Now they realised that no such rights existed. 

The Greenough-Conybeare dispute lasted two years. At one point it was agreed that Greenough would produce a map and Conybeare a memoir. Greenough imagined he could repeat the same trick as he had for his map of England, though Warburton suggested the involvement of Continental geologists. But then Conybeare published a small version of a map he had been working on with De la Beche, claiming to suppress a large-scale version in deference to Greenough. Matters were made worse by Conybeare’s use of French maps belonging to Greenough and not helped by describing Greenough as a mere compiler![79] The dispute, which was only resolved when he gave up the project, almost caused Greenough to quit geology entirely.[80]

In this new competitive environment, individuals would refuse to see drafts of competing works or engage in anything which might later bring about a charge of theft or plagiarism. Early on there were attempts at chivalrous resolution but soon the battle became too intense and was increasingly between strangers. There are countless examples of the colourful language and spiteful commentary which seem to define the culture of parts of the Society as it entered the 1820s. John Phillips, one of the most level-headed and diplomatic geologists of his day, commented as a newcomer to London in 1831: ‘The jealousy among the men of Science here is wonderful and you feel to walk on a cavity, and to be grasped by a hand of friendship no firmer than a ghost’s shadow’ (Knell 2000, p. 30-33).

It was into this world that Fitton pondered injecting a proposal, in March 1822, to have Smith elected an Honorary Member. We should note, however, that the Society had begun life with huge numbers of such members who were distinguished by living outside London and not having to suffer the high costs of membership and participation. The purpose had been to get free labour and support, and it had worked very well. Fitton’s proposal, then, was not the act of ennoblement it might at first seem. Famously, Webster commented: ‘What do you think of [Fitton’s] declared intention of proposing Smith an Honorary Member of the Geological Society on account of the services he has rendered to geology, and that Greenough [then the President] shall be the first to sign his certificate? Do you think Greenough will find this pill as difficult to swallow as any of his uncle’s?!’ (Torrens 1990, p. 8). One can well imagine Greenough’s difficulty and the loss of face that would result: he had quite legitimately led the disbelievers, deniers, and competitors. But now the legitimacy of those actions began to dissolve as a result of cultural change, the incoming of youthful minds and the rapid loss of the other founders.

Geology beyond London

If the Society’s increasing tendency towards competitive dialogue seems to begin around the time of the publication of Smith’s map in 1815, it must also begin at the close of a far more influential event: the Napoleonic Wars. Cessation of hostilities resulted in a mass exchange of savants, each crossing the Channel to engage in intelligence gathering and even geological trade (Knell 2000, pp. 28-30). This certainly had a hugely competitive aspect which may have combined with the dissolution of a ‘wartime spirit’ to alter the perspective of Society members. In the years after the war, then, geology was changing socially and intellectually. Greenough’s Critical Examination in 1819 was almost the last gasp of the philosophical approach prevalent at the Society’s founding (Greenough 1819a); it now appeared as a relic from a former world. As the science entered the 1820s, it was on a new footing. There was an increasingly unified sense of what geology was and how it should be prosecuted and indeed what were its major questions, even if the membership itself had become rather less unified and more individualistic. The science had continued to become increasingly fashionable. These factors now contributed to a development which effectively removed the ability of the Society to be the single geological hub of the nation, for a geological society, of sorts, began to spring up in almost every town in England. It was in these new geological centres, rather than in London, that Smith presented himself as the harbinger of the future of the science.

Escaping his creditors, the taxman and the politics of geology in the metropolis, in the late 1810s Smith had headed for Yorkshire. His timing could not have been more perfect, for post-war northern England was becoming the heartland for a reinvigorated movement to establish literary and philosophical societies interested, as their name suggests, in libraries, science and urban cohesion. Smith was welcomed amongst these elite associations, for he was known, by name at least, as the great originator in English geology. Here he began a new life as a peripatetic lecturer soon accompanied on stage by John Phillips who proved to be one of the most eloquent and captivating geological lecturers of his age. Smith may have been, by comparison, meandering and anecdotal but he was nevertheless appreciated as the embodiment of invention and rich experience. There was also a humble wit and charm to the man which had never failed to attract the friendship and admiration of others. Phillips penned an appreciative portrait of his uncle on one of those few occasions when Smith’s health failed him, which captures something of Smith’s lectures:

It was a singular spectacle, to witness the delivery of lectures which required continual reference to large maps and numerous diagrams, by a man who could not stand, but was forced to read his address from a chair […] but Mr. Smith would have thought it unworthy of his resolved mind and firm trust in Providence, to have abated one jot of his accustomed cheerfulness, shortened one of the innumerable playful stories which were always springing to his lips from the rich treasure-house of his memory or turned his meditations from his favourite subjects.

(Phillips 1844, p. 111)

Many of these societies were concerned above all else with geology: the society in York admitted to being a geological society; the societies in Whitby and Scarborough were also strongly geological. The museum was established as a central scientific resource, and it was this geologically-attuned movement which gave the nation its provincial museum culture. Between lectures, in the field and in society collections, Phillips, sometimes with Smith, performed a stratigraphic magic which was entirely new to these audiences (Knell 2000). Local naturalists and geologists were astounded; this was revelatory science. It was revelatory not just because of the order it instilled but also for its philosophical certainty; there were heads in this part of the world still dreaming up theories of the Earth.  In 1824, in lectures in York, Scarborough and Hull, audiences were converted to Smithian geology. Leeds had earlier fallen, and other towns across the country would follow. These truly were conversions, for on the day after the lecture, audiences woke to see the world differently. Many began to collect fossils for the first time or with a new purpose. Phillips referred to these events in evangelical terms: ‘I may flatter myself with a good many converts out of an audience of several hundreds’ (Edmonds 1975, p. 389). This was the final phase in Smith’s conversion of the nation. Fitton may later suggest that Smith should have published in order to make his claim, but true to his character and resources, Smith had converted the nation in person. The Geological Society had used its networks to connect to land and mine owners; Smith had visited them himself, often proving himself in commissioned work. Here, in Yorkshire, Smith found patronage from the leaders of the philosophical movement in York and Scarborough. The county could boast some of the most politically influential landowners and religious figures in the country; both groups were connected to these new societies. They now took possession of Smith as a national treasure; they had no desire to use him politically. Similarly, John Phillips, then in his early 20s, was adopted by the Yorkshire Philosophical Society as its curator. In that role he became the living embodiment of science as a youthful moral and cultural force in provincial England. It was Phillips who now achieved the intellectual goals of the York society, revealing with wonderful eloquence and sophistication the power of Smith’s geology in his Illustrations of the Geology of Yorkshire(Phillips 1829; Morrell 2005, p. 66). This achievement was recognised by Geological Society stalwarts, Horner, Fitton, Murchison, Buckland, Conybeare and De la Beche.

Chief among Smith’s supporters in Yorkshire were William Vernon (later Vernon Harcourt) (1789-1871)), first President of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society, and his brother-in-law, Sir John Johnstone (1799-1869), patron of Smith and the Scarborough society. Vernon was an Oxford graduate and friend of Buckland and Conybeare. Indeed, Conybeare was creating his own institution at Bristol at that time and here Smith was given honorary membership with Conybeare’s backing (Torrens 1990, p. 10). It was acquired, however, after Smith’s patronage by Conybeare’s Yorkshire friends. In 1826, Murchison made a pilgrimage to Yorkshire to be educated by Smith and Phillips, and he too was converted. In 1829, the recently formed Literary and Philosophical Society in Scarborough opened the Scarborough Museum. Its circular form was an architectural manifestation of Smith’s notion of a geological museum. It was a monument to Smith’s geology. 

The collection is very valuable for a provincial town; and is particularly rich in Geological specimens. Their arrangement is strictly natural, and when adopted was one of the first of the kind in Great Britain. The fossils are placed on sloping shelves, in vertical succession, so as to represent their position in the different stratifications from which they have been removed [81]

(Hume and Evans 1853, p. 154)

At its opening, Smith was for the first time acclaimed the ‘father of English geology’. In the following year, at the opening of the grander, but less architecturally innovative, Yorkshire Museum, in York, Smith was again addressed in these terms (Morrell 2005, p. 73-4). 

The Geological Society’s recognition of Smith, then, did not emanate from an extraordinarily long period of digestion spanning the period between Fitton’s first published expression of appreciation for him in 1818 and Sedgwick’s address. Work had been done elsewhere and Smith had already gained the recognition which the Society would later give. However, the Yorkshire geologists saw the Geological Society as pre-eminent in the science and thus capable of awarding Smith the highest recognition. They did not know that their fellow Yorkshireman, Adam Sedgwick, would give still greater recognition to their man.


Rewriting history

Sedgwick’s presentation of the Wollaston Medal to Smith in 1831 (the medal was actually put in his possession in June 1832 (Phillips 1844, p. 117)) reflected a fundamental transformation in the Society’s values and perceptions but clearly this was not something a Society would wish to make public knowledge. Change had made some of its members’ past actions incomprehensible, even reprehensible. A little historical concealment would be necessary if Smith’s claim was to be substantiated without embarrassment to the Society. There are hints of this in the changes Fitton made to his 1818 review of English geology, which he republished in 1832-1833. Both reviews were written with the aim of understanding Smith’s achievements; the second was, however, to secure Sedgwick’s claim. Historians have seen these articles as important acts of advocacy for Smith but they are just as much acts of concealment.

Fitton’s first review greeted, after decades of near silence in print (as a result of failed attempts at publication), a spate of remarkable publications by Smith. Following the publication of his map in 1815, Smith also published his Memoir of the Map and Delineation (1815), his Strata Identified by Organized Fossils (1816), his extraordinary Geological Section from London to Snowdon (1817), his series of county maps (1817), which were now surpassing his national map in utility, and his Stratigraphical System of Organized Fossils (1817), which described his collection, recently sold under financial duress to the British Museum (Sheppard 1917, p. 118ff; Eyles 1967). In this remarkable turnaround in his publications, he had been aided by the arrival in London of the precociously talented 14-year-old John Phillips, in 1815.

Fitton was unreserved in recommending these publications to his readers but he felt his review needed to do more that this. It was necessary once and for all to understand if these works rested upon principles Smith himself had invented. In order to conduct his review, therefore, Fitton had no other course open to him but to construct a ‘chronology of science’ based on ‘the relative order of publication’. But here he faced a problem, for Smith had not published his ideas until recently, despite possessing and utilising them for many years. In 1818, Fitton was willing to overlook this problem but in 1832, with Smith now formally recognised by the Society, he felt compelled to use this failing to cover up the Society’s long denial of Smith. He did this by gently blaming Smith for not communicating his ideas through the Royal Society and thus giving them a ‘most dignified and authentic form’. While it is true that from 1801, Smith did have the ear of the Royal’s president, Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820) (Eyles 1985; Torrens 1994; 1997), Smith’s ambitions would never have been directed towards that particular society. Smith did, however, harbour rather grand ambitions to give comprehensive expression to his ideas in monograph and map (Cox 1942). While he might be considered neither a writer nor an orator, he was proven in print, as in his 1801 Prospectus and his 1806 book Observations on the Utility, Form and Management of Water Meadows (Sheppard 1817, pp. 110-7). But he realised, on completing this latter book, the full cost of publication,  

The Subject of Strata […] now appears to be a most gigantic Undertaking, the accomplishing of which would almost alarm me to despair […] I had no Idea of the depth to which I am imersed. The time and attention necessary to the completion of such a small work as that on Irrigation has fully convinced me of the much greater difficulties attending the publication of a voluminous Work on the Strata.

(Smith, 14 December 1806, quoted in Torrens 2001, p. 66)

His preference was for the immediacy of verbal communication and the power of empirically produced visual aids. These were suited to the business matters that occupied his life and made no call upon those literary or academic talents which his education had failed to give him (Phillips 1844, pp. 127-30). By these means he converted so many to his cause (Torrens 2001). Costs of publication were, anyway, prohibitive, especially for a man with pictorial ambitions. His geological map of England took more than a decade to reach production both because of these difficulties and the scale of the project; it is not an unreasonable timescale for so major a solo project even today. Only in a competitive world of claim and counterclaim would Smith have sacrificed his grand and practical ambitions merely to stake his own claim though even then he would not have been the man to do so through the Royal Society. This competitive geological world did not exist in 1801 or 1807 and by all accounts it never occurred to him that his failure to publish might have implications for him in later life. Despite his silence, however, others did put Smith’s ideas into print in this early period (Eyles 1967; 1985; Ford and Torrens 1989; Knell 2000, p. 14-15; Sheppard 1917, p. 215).

In a few unreasonable words, then, Fitton had used the Society’s pre-occupation with publication, then established as critical to priority claims in a highly competitive science, to legitimise its own supposed ignorance. He now needed to admit that some members of the Society did in fact adopt Smith’s ideas without crediting him. He did this by recognising that Smith’s verbal dissemination through his Bath contacts had been successful: his ‘knowledge so diffused has had a most important, though unobserved, effect upon the labours of all succeeding inquirers; who were, perhaps unconsciously, but not less really, indebted to the author for very essential assistance in their progress’ ([Fitton] 1818, p. 313; Fitton 1832-1833, p. 149). This excused the failure to acknowledge Smith, though it could only be believed if the reader had never come across the writings of Farey or any of the early adopters of Smith, including some in the Society itself. The real reason why Smith remained uncredited was not that his name was lost to the Society men but that most believed he did not invent the principles he preached, while a number of others, including Greenough and Kidd, thought them unproven and useless. If either charge were true then Smith possessed nothing that could be stolen or plagiarised and he deserved no mention. Of course, this scepticism was quite legitimate in the mid 1810s, when the discipline itself was still in a process of formation, but Fitton could not admit to it in 1832, as it would make the Society seem at best incompetent and at worst thieving. Instead, Fitton admitted that there was a sense that several earlier authors had made a ‘near approach’ to the same ideas; in other words, that this scepticism was legitimate. 

Most prominent amongst these earlier authors was the ‘ingenious’ John Michell (1724-1793), who in Fitton’s 1818 mind appeared to have discovered almost everything that was then claimed for Smith. Michell clearly had an extraordinary knowledge of stratification far beyond the borders of Britain. And in his discussion of the tracing of strata he seemed to make his most profound of statements: ‘and this often makes it difficult to trace the appearances I have been relating; which, without a general knowledge of the fossil bodies of a large tract of country, it is hardly possible to do’ (emphasis, Fitton 1818, p. 318). In 1818, Fitton found this an insurmountable obstacle to proving Smith’s originality. 

On reading this, Farey immediately appealed to the University of Cambridge, where Michell had been appointed Woodwardian Professor in 1762, for access to any surviving records. These, however, were not forthcoming, so he decided, instead, to republish Michell’s essay in full in one of the popular magazines of the day, accompanying it with a critique which tenaciously defended Smith (Farey 1818c, p. 184). By permitting readers to see Michell’s comments in context, it should have been clear to many that Michell could not have been suggesting a Smithian methodology. As Farey had not come across Michell’s essay – but nevertheless knew of Michell’s ordering of strata (Farey 1811, p. 109n.) – until reading Fitton’s piece, he must have been relieved by what he found:

Mr. Smith’s detractors would fain make it out, that Mr Michell here meant organized remains; if this were apparent, I would not hesitate an instant, in giving him the praise due to so important a suggestion: plainly however, Mr. M. intimates, that the requisite knowledge of the “fossil bodies”, of whatever kind, was not then possessed by him: – my highly-injured Friend Mr. Smith, did possess the useful knowledge, and was liberal in communicating it, of the unorganized and organized bodies “of a large tract of country”, years before Geognosts, or any other their hand-specimen mineralogical Theory of the Earth, was to be heard or read of in this country.

(Farey 1818c, p. 260)

Fitton’s indecision seemed unwarranted, perhaps even a deception. For the rewrite, however, Sedgwick reassured him that there was no evidence in Michell’s collections at Cambridge that he signified ‘organized remains’ (animal or plant fossils) by his use of the term ‘fossil bodies’ or that he organised collections stratigraphically. But Fitton chose to also hide behind a historiographic nicety, remarking:

it is only candid to allow, that the passages which bear upon these points might possibly have slept much longer in the volumes which contain them, if the attention excited by Mr. Smith’s publications had not led to their detection; and that the light in which they now appear to us is very different from what it would have been without such assistance.

(Fitton 1832-1933, p. 151)

This was tantamount to condemning Michell to the same fate that had befallen Smith: condemning his invention for the manner of its dissemination. It seemed to suggest that Fitton still did not believe in Smith’s originality but it was more likely his way of excusing himself for the effects of his earlier erroneous interpretation. Now, rather than contradict himself, he suggested that Michell could simply be ignored.

Fitton’s 1818 essay had begun by drawing upon the ‘near truth’ of a dismissive speech from the Vicar of Wakefield, to suggest that investigations of the Earth, before the modern age, had merely produced chaos ([Fitton] 1818, p. 313). In 1832, he was, by comparison, conducting a ‘scientific’ argument of some import, which he knew would be scrutinised by his friends. Those authors, whom he had earlier thought absurd, now had eminence and merit. Only now could the project of the geological map be traced back to Martin Lister’s (c.1639-1712) ‘An ingenious proposal for a new sort of maps of countries’ published in the Philosophical Transactions in 1684. With some judicious editing of quotes, Fitton could argue that although Lister had not produced the geological map he proposed, his interpretation of the ‘soiles’ of Yorkshire mirrored the spatial divisions of modern day maps and accounts, such as those produced by Smith and John Phillips in the 1820s. Fitton’s quotation of John Woodward (1665-1728) was similarly expanded to reveal that the notion of strata was key to his assertion that rocks extended beyond the bounds of Britain and into Europe. In 1818, the Society’s possessed rather less interest in the order of strata believing that the big answer would arise from mineral geography. In 1818, then, Fitton noted the value of the ‘collection of minerals and fossils’ Woodward had made and left to the University of Cambridge. However, in 1832, in this same passage, fossils were all and minerals made no showing. In this simple piece of editing is recorded a fundamental reconceptualisation of the central resources of the science. Rocks and minerals were still collected but their significance was by then much reduced; in 1807, minerals had had the prominence he now gave to fossils. 

In 1832, Fitton’s Smithian spectacles were firmly attached and he sought out those workers whom he believed were Smith’s intellectual ancestors by detecting the general arrangement of strata in Britain and in some degree their order. These were William Stukeley (1687-1765) and John Strachey (1681-1743), (Fitton 1832-1833, p. 156). The insertion of Strachey permitted Fitton to strike a blow against German mineralogist, Johann Gottlob Lehmann (1719-1767), who suffered the illusion that he was ‘the first to observe and describe correctly the structure of stratified countries’ ([Fitton] 1818, p. 317; Fitton 1832-1833, p. 160). 

Even in 1818, Fitton did recognise that Smith offered a workable future but Fitton had difficulty in extracting himself from the kind of geology he had always known and which so shaped the early outlook of the Society. Then, and in 1832, he had obligations and friendships within the Society which called for his careful curation of the past. His essays cleverly attempted to negotiate a present in which Smith, the Society and earlier sceptics could all be brought together in an atmosphere of peace and reconciliation. One cannot doubt his honest appreciation of Smith, but he, like Farey, was never an uncomplicated advocate. Indeed, other factors are far more important in the Society’s recognition of Smith: Farey’s early death in 1826 meant the Society could make a U-turn without losing face; Smith’s near silence in these disputes meant he could be visualised as a political neutral; Smith’s ‘inestimable’ character made him an uncontroversial subject for adoption; the rise of Smithian geology amongst the membership had proceeded steadily and by the early 1820s most understood that they were indebted to Smith and wished to recognise him; John Phillips’s recent proof of Smith’s method; and Smith’s adoption by the Yorkshire elite which made him an unstoppable force ripe for recognition by the best known and most intellectually talented Yorkshire geologist of them all, Sedgwick. 

Dissipation and reinvention  

From the moment of its birth, the Geological Society had become the intellectual hub and powerhouse of the new science. It embodied a national desire and tapped into the social, economic and intellectual networks for which the project had immediate and obvious worth. It was not alone for long. The Edinburgh-based Wernerian Natural History Society formed in January 1808, at that moment when the Geological was transforming itself into a proper learned society. It was no imitator, and it was established to take forward the teachings of Werner. It became one hub of a Scottish debate that shaped the anti-theoretical resolve of the London men. If the Society believed it possessed the nation’s geology, it knew that nation was England. Yet, it believed it followed the only proper philosophical course and in doing so doubtless also believed that its ideas and methods would eventually displace those of the Scots. In 1811, Greenough and Buckland planned trips into Scotland and Ireland. Referring to the famous old English ballad, Chevy Chase, in which the King of Scotland mistakes, for an invasion, an English hunt in the Cheviot Hills, Conybeare joked: 

May nothing inauspicious befall your expedition. May no jealousy inspire the Wernerian Society of Edinburgh to array full twenty hundred Scottish hammers under the banners of Jameson to resent the Intrusion of English interlopers on the only quarries which Cheviot now furnishes. Should any fatal accident betide our President I fear we could not console ourselves so easily as King Harry [:]

we trust we have within our realm 

five hundred good as he.[82]

The presence of the Wernerian should make us doubt that a geological society alone could really define and control a nation’s science. Geological debate and the control of geological territories were not restricted to societies and especially not to geological societies. There were other society-like associations such as the regular readership and correspondents of a journal like Philosophical Magazine. The average member experienced the Geological Society much as they would a magazine subscription. This is not to devalue the Geological Society’s status or achievements but to place them in a richer context. The Geological Society may have believed from the outset that it was the nation’s geological society, and it certainly was for those who participated in its activities, but there was more to geology than this. If the likes of Smith were outsiders, they were in good company.

Six years after the Wernerian, the Royal Geological Society of Cornwall was established, in February 1814. Again, while this signals a peculiar concentration of practical geological interest in that county, this Cornish innovation was rather less extraordinary than it now seems. In towns and cities across the nation, there were attempts to formalise associations into philosophical and literary clubs and societies. Most frequently these failed, formally, but existed in networks which may well have been geological. Smith’s contacts around Bath suggest such a concentration. Farey’s work for the Board of Agriculture in Derbyshire further weakens the firmness of the boundaries that we might put in place to separate societies from individuals and government bodies. Here too we might add the almost formalised social network which surrounded men like Banks, to whom so many were indebted for patronage and various opportunities for socialised science beyond the more rarefied activities of the Royal Society. The primary building blocks for these different social configurations were, of course, the individuals who wished to belong and join. In this ambition they were aided by such works as Hume and Evans’ (1853) directory of learned societies. Interestingly, appended to the entry on the Geological Society was a long note on the Geological Survey. Plainly the Survey was not a Society but the compilers of the book thought the differences rather less definite than we might presume. It had, for example, offered casual employment to local gentlemen.

In the 1820s, Britain became populated with philosophical societies, a large number of which had strong – sometimes dominant – interests in geology. The curatorial class they now sponsored was primarily made up of geologists. In 1831, the British Association for the Advancement of Science was established as a roving body outside the control of a single clique. Involving Jameson, but first meeting in the neutral territory of York, where it was controlled by Vernon Harcourt, its opening impromptu lecture was on geology performed by that embodiment of youthful science, John Phillips, who also became a controlling influence in the Association. Thus at the moment when Sedgwick defined and elevated ‘English geology’ and took possession of it for the Society, another national scientific ‘society’ was formed which reconfigured the disciplinary landscape. It may have represented an association of interests, and was thus unable to usurp the Geological Society’s pre-eminence, but it became a public forum for debate simply because it lay outside the Society’s grasp (Rudwick 1985).

In many ways, all these developments endorsed the achievements of the Geological Society. They were a product of that individualistic, investigative and aspiring culture of geology propagated by the Society in its early years. But at the same time, if success brings imitation and diversification, then for the parent Society it must also produce a degree of dissipation. With the founding of the philosophical societies, for example, it had to defer, in part, to the authority of local networks and collections, and it began to doubt the necessity of its own museum. The biggest challenge, however, came with the formation of the Geological Survey of Great Britain. This, when reconfigured at the beginning of the 1840s, effectively removed geology from the competitive culture which the Geological Society had engendered. It was an intentional political move – a cultural revolution – that changed the science fundamentally and the role of all societies within it (Knell 2007a; 2007b). The Survey, skilfully managed by De la Beche, now enclosed and internalised those disputed aspects of the science which had given it forward momentum. The Society’s role must, by this move, have been weakened still further but by then the governance of the country was changing and taxation could increasingly fund geological enterprise. By then also, geology had been normalised as a subject and was thus naturally brought into the work of numerous organisations. Buckland, in 1840, noted the spread of geology into all areas of public life (Buckland 1840). Geology had also established itself in the literature and courted an expanded public who wished to speculate and imagine (O’Connor 2007; 2009). 

Following the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Society, yet another geological society was established in London. This was the Geologists’ Association, which was formed to perform a rather humbler kind of geology for the everyman (Sweeting 1958). However, it drew considerable support from the Society’s Fellows who liked its active field-based programme. The Association was no talking shop: it was proud of Britain’s rich geological heritage and made engagement participatory. Across the nation field clubs were established and once again the socialisation of geology changed and with it the place of the Society. 

Smith, too, would be subject to the same dissipating influences.  Buckland, in 1840, with the second edition of Greenough’s map newly mounted in the meeting room, inadvertently began the assault on Smith. Then President, Buckland, who had been active in seeing through the revision of the map, referred to it as ‘the glory of this Society’ (Buckland 1840, p. 222). Ironically, but perhaps intentionally, he did so on the occasion of recording the death of William Smith. At that moment, it seems, his task was to care for the living and particularly for his great friend, Greenough, for by then one could not look at Greenough’s map or think of William Smith without believing that the Society, and Greenough in particular, had orchestrated an injustice. Farey’s claims against the Society remained unanswered and in festering away doubtless produced rumours particularly amongst those who never knew the Society in the ‘old days’. 

But Buckland did not stop there, for he also withdrew a little of the status the Society had conferred on Smith less than a decade before, suggesting implicitly that Smith’s parentage of English geology needed to be taken with a pinch of salt.

But it must not be forgotten, that both in this country and on the continent, other investigators, many of them no doubt unknown to him, were simultaneously collecting similar evidence in support of this great physical generalization. […] In our just admiration of our countryman, therefore, we must not lose sight of the merits of his contemporary labourers on the continent; and whilst we honour him as the father of English Geology, let us also pay just homage to those who had started before him in the same course, wherein it was his undisputed merit to have arrived first at the goal.

(Buckland 1840, p. 251-2)

Buckland’s tribute to Smith, then, for all its warmth, is also the beginning of a counter narrative, by which a succession of historians and commentators have sought to question or reconfigure Smith’s status. This has not been a coordinated effort, just the product of revisionist ambitions or simple forgetting, but it has been met by a seemingly coordinated response from generations of historians who have seen the defence of Smith as an act of almost religious devotion. Perhaps it is a defence against the inevitable effects of the Second Law of Thermodynamics: the past requires constant curation if it is not to fall into disorder. A reviewer of the Society’s Transactions in 1830, for example, wrote: ‘Mr Smith’s views were taken up by the Geological Society of London, and prosecuted with a degree of zeal, liberality, and success, which does them infinite honour’ (Anon. 1830). Smith had his advocates and admirers in a way that Greenough did not. One could well romanticise the John-Bullish Smith who seemed to epitomise the English folk hero. 

In Greenough’s life, those who had contributed to his map – men such as Buckland and Conybeare – also helped promote it. By these efforts, Greenough’s map became the Society’s map. However, when the third edition of the map was produced in 1865 its title seemed to finally admit that Greenough had plagiarised Smith (Challinor 1964-1965, II, p 164). This, too, is an erroneous interpretation.

In July 1857, a committee was formed to revise the recently deceased Greenough’s map which, in its second edition of 1840, was still actively used by contemporary scientists. It is noteworthy that this committee was made up of a clique of Smithians: Murchison, John Phillips, Robert Alfred Cloyne Godwin-Austin (1808-1884), John Morris (1810-1886), Joseph Prestwich (1812-1896) and Colonel James. Of these, Phillips, who was soon to become President, was to superintend the project. It was to be funded in part from a legacy of £500 left by Greenough. Council gave the committee permission to give the map a new title, and it was resolved on 7 December 1864, that this be ‘A Geological Map of England and Wales by G. B. Greenough Esq. F.R.S. (on the Basis of the original Map of Mr Smith 1815) revised and improved with the results of the Geological Survey 1836-63, on MS additions by Sir Roderick Murchison, Professor Phillips, Joseph Prestwich Esq. and R. Godwin Austen Esq. under the Supervision of a Committee of the Geological Society’.[83] What had happened was that the committee had credited itself, with contributors like Murchison, who was not alone in appreciating the memorialising nature of publication, considering the legacy of his own earlier work. Indeed, given that the basis for this new map was the Geological Survey’s maps, in what sense was this even Greenough’s map? Those Survey maps had, of course, been developed from earlier maps – earlier sources were plagiarised because one could never know precisely who had first drawn and coloured which line or done so correctly. Geological maps were cumulative ventures. This is accepted today but was used to doubt Greenough in 1819. In hardly crediting his contributors, Greenough was setting a standard for map making or rather adopting one already long established. Those he did mention in his first Memoir did not appear in his second edition, yet clearly their contributions remained in the map itself. Smith finds his way onto the third edition of the map primarily because those living wished to see themselves credited for their earlier work and therefore they could not fail to mention the pioneering work of Smith himself. In doing so they did not mean to intimate that Greenough had stolen Smith’s data. It was an act of self-acknowledgement which caused much debate and argument following the map’s production, many others apparently believing that they too deserved credit. 

It is ironic indeed that Smith, a ‘happy farmer’ or ‘a plain farmer-looking man’,[84] who was by all accounts a simple, modest and generous man, should become such a significant political object in the development and history of geology. It is perhaps because of all the things the science discovered in that period, none was more fundamental than Smith himself. If one could claim a discovery and a reputation by possessing a fossil, then by possessing Smith, as Sedgwick did, one might also believe, and lead others to imagine, that one possessed the science itself. Today, there is no better material representation of his very English achievement than his map. It rightly stands for scientific aspiration but in a rather humble and self-effacing English manner. However, if we wish to understand the role of the Society in this science then we must instead look to Greenough’s map for it both embodies the tremendous cooperative spirit which saw the Society come into being and the competitive politics of socialised scientific engagement which the Society nurtured so ably and which drove the science to achieve so much in its first 50 years. It was this, too, that enabled the Society men to capture Smith and his map for their own purposes.  


I would like to thank my referees, Martin Rudwick and Pietro Corsi, for their helpful comments and suggestions on what became an early and rather different version of this paper. Mike Taylor kindly agreed to read and comment on two later versions of this paper, and Hugh Torrens offered a number of useful corrections to the manuscript in the final hours of its preparation. In thanking them, I must stress that the views expressed here are my own and not necessarily theirs. The expertise of GSL librarian, Wendy Cawthorne, has been vital to this project as she has been able to locate many of the primary sources upon which this paper is based. The staff at the Special Collections at UCL gave considerable help in locating most of the Greenough-related materials used in this paper and I thank them for permission to quote from and illustrate them. Michael Richardson and the University of Bristol Library Special Collections aided Cherry Lewis in obtaining photographs of the Phillips maps illustrated here. Tom Sharpe, at the National Museum of Wales, kindly supplied me with the images of Smith’s and Greenough’s maps. I am grateful to the History of Geology Group for generously supporting the printing of the coloured illustrations, and to the University of Leicester for further financial support. Without the help of these individuals this paper would not have been possible. Finally, and most importantly, I must thank Cherry for her constant encouragement during the seemingly never-ending writing of this paper which took much of 2008. 


GSL: Geological Society of London.

UCL: University College London, Special Collections, Greenough papers.


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[1] Here Toru Okada considers how well he knows the wife who, within a few pages, will leave him.

[2] By ‘socialised’ I am referring to the social aspects of the science and not to political socialism.

[3] ‘It is our object to employ Mr. Webster in the manner you propose – (i.e. we shall tell him to do certain things) – but my great fear is that he has acquired such habits that it will be difficult to bring him really to work in his vocation. The experiment, however, it does appear to me, ought to be fairly made before we sever a connexion that has existed so long.’ UCL:Fitton to Greenough, 15 September 1828, Add. 7918, 611. 

[4] Hugely promoted and  the subject of considerable positive press, Winchester’s book has nevertheless attracted criticism from historians. See, for example, Oldroyd (2001) and  McBirney (2005). 

[5] Part of an important publishing phenomenon, it is discussed by Miller (2002) who coins it ‘The Sobel Effect’.

[6] UCL: Greenough, main collection, mss. 5.  However, an earlier account of the first edition (UCL: Warburton to Greenough, April 1823, Add. 7918,1696) suggests that this was not an unprofitable venture and that Greenough’s £3000 may include the subscriptions of members. 

[7] Herries Daves (Pers. Comm., 13 November 2007).

[8] This kind of analysis owes much to work in the interdisciplinary field of museum studies, which itself has drawn on work in sociology, anthropology, literary criticism and so on. See, for example, Pearce (1990; 1995); Preziosi (1989;1998); Knell (2007c).

[9] Consider, for example, Branagan’s (2009) geologists.

[10] For which, see Smith’s record of the event published by Morgan (2007).

[11] Benjamin Richardson, Farley [Farleigh Hungerford] to Sedgwick, 10 February 1831 (Sedgwick 1831, pp. 275-6).

[12]  Laudan (1977) mistakenly, in my view, interpreted the birth of the Society as having little or no impact on the development of the science.

[13] GSL: Greenough, ‘Papers connected with the Geological Society’, a history of the first three years with copies of letters and lists, (c.1850) LDGSL 960 (hereafter simply, Greenough). 

[14] UCL: Fitton to Greenough, 12 November 1812, Add. 7918, 592.

[15] UCL: Fitton to Greenough, 12 November 1812, Add. 7918, 592.

[16] UCL: Fitton to Greenough, 12 November 1812, Add. 7918, 592; 3 February 1813, Add. 7918, 595.

[17] Delicate in judgement.

[18] UCL: Horner to Greenough, 4 April 1809, Add. 7918, 823.

[19] UCL: Horner to Greenough, 4 April 1809, Add. 7918, 823.

[20] GSL: Greenough p. 3.

[21] UCL: Fitton to Greenough, 17 November 1812, Add. 7918, 593.

[22] GSL: Greenough, p. 5.

[23] GSL: Ordinary Minute Book 1, 1 January 1808.

[24] These are reproduced in the present volume.

[25] GSL: Greenough p. 2. Pencil note added later and reflecting the purposeful nature of this record; also p. 39.

[26] GSL: Greenough, p. 36, pencil note.

[27] GSL: Ordinary Minute Book 1.

[28] GSL: Greenough, p. 41. Lewis (2009b) discusses the medical makeup of this committee. 

[29] UCL:  Conybeare to Greenough, 12 June 1811, Add. 7918, 431.

[30] UCL: Conybeare to Greenough, 21 June 1811, Add. 7918, 433.

[31] Torrens (pers. comm.) suggests this trial may have contributed to the Oxonians’ change of mind concerning the reliability of Smith’s methods for at some point Smith appears to have visited the trial (which closed around 1815). It is, however, also apparent that Wernerians, Kidd and Greenough, also seemed to doubt the presence of coal.

[32] UCL: Kidd to Greenough 8 May 1812, Add. 7918, 1067.

[33] UCL: Kidd to Greenough, 25 May 1813, Add. 7918, 1068.

[34] GSL: Greenough lectures on strata, circa 1813, LDGSL 955.

[35] UCL: Kidd to Greenough, 22 June 1814, Add. 7918, 1069.

[36] UCL: Farey to Greenough, 16 August 1810, Add. 7918, 549.

[37] UCL: Farey to Greenough 7 January 1812 Add. 7918, 554.

[38] UCL: Fitton to Greenough, 28 November 1813, Add. 7918, 598.

[39] UCL: Farey to Greenough, 8 March 1808, Add. 7918, 548.

[40] A pole is a measure of length, identical to a perch, and equivalent to 5.03m.

[41] UCL: Farey, Memorandums at Hunstanton Cliff, 24 June 1804, Add. 7918, 547.

[42] UCL: Conybeare to Greenough, 15 November 1811, Add. 7918, 435.

[43] UCL: Conybeare to Greenough, 4 December 1811, Add. 7918, 436.

[44] UCL: Conybeare to Greenough, 4 December 1811, Add. 7918, 436.

[45] UCL: Farey to Greenough, 5 May 1811, Add. 7918,  553. See also Torrens (2001, p. 68) for Smith’s later comments on this problem.

[46] UCL: Fitton to Greenough, 19 February [1813], Add. 7918, 596.

[47] UCL: Conybeare to Greenough, [undated], Add. 7918, 439.

[48] UCL: Conybeare to Greenough, 18 February 1813, Add. 7918, 455.

[49] UCL: Farey to Greenough, 8 March 1808, Add. 7918, 548. See also Smith (1818) in Sheppard (1917, p. 216).

[50] UCL: Meade to Greenough, 7 November 1811, Add. 7918, 1211.

[51] See Smith’s 1818 account in Sheppard (1917, p. 214-20).

[52] UCL: Conybeare to Greenough, [nd],  Add. 7918,  446

[53] UCL: Fitton to Greenough, 17 November 1812, Add. 7918,  593.

[54] UCL: Fitton to Greenough, 28 February 1814, Add. 7918, 599.

[55] UCL: Farey to Greenough, 23 January 1813, Add. 7918, 562.

[56] UCL:  Farey to Greenough, 8 April 1813. Add. 7918, 567.

[57] UCL: Farey to Greenough, 29 May 1813. Add. 7918, 570.

[58] UCL: Farey to Greenough, 30 May 1813, Add. 7918, 571

[59] UCL:  Farey to Greenough, 8 April 1813. Add. 7918, 567.

[60] UCL Warburton to Greenough, [c. June 1813], Add. 7918, 1684.

[61] UCL: Warburton to Greenough [June 1813], Add. 7918, 1685.

[62]UCL: Greenough to Farey (author’s copy), [31 May 1813], Add. 7918, 572; Farey to Greenough, 2 June 1813, Add. 7918, 573.

[63] UCL:; Farey to Greenough, 4 June 1813, Add. 7918, 574; Farey to Greenough, 15 June 1813, Add. 7918, 575. For further background and interpretation, Torrens (1994, p. 67)

[64] UCL: Farey to Greenough, 12 March 1813, Add. 7918, 564.

[65] UCL: Farey to Greenough, 12 March 1813, Add. 7918, 564.

[66] UCL: Conybeare to Greenough, 18 February 1813, Add. 7918, 445.

[67] His articles in Philosophical Magazine critical of the Society fall into the years, 1814-1822, a period strangely missing in the Society’s own collection of this publication. 

[68] UCL: Fitton to Greenough, 14 March 1814, Add. 7918, 600.

[69] GSL: Council Minute book 1, 11 March 1812.

[70] GSL: Council Minute book 1, 11 March 1812.

[71] GSL: Geological map of England and Wales: Agreements, accounts and drafts 1814-1820, 4 folders, LDGSL 974.

[72] UCL: Conybeare to Greenough, 4 January 1825, Add. 7918, 463.

[73] UCL: Kidd to Greenough, 7 November 1814, Add. 7918, 1070.

[74] UCL: Fitton to Greenough, 15 November 1816, Add. 7918, 601.

[75] UCL: Greenough pencil draft of letter to Fitton, [26 December 1817], Add. 7918, 603.

[76] Jameson (1816) reviews the literature and notes the importance of Thomson’s work which devoted one volume to mineralogy. Fitton doubtless used Jameson as an important resource.

[77] UCL: Fitton to Greenough, 11 January 1818, Add. 7918, 604

[78] UCL: Warburton to Greenough, 30 May 1817, Add. 7918, 1691.

[79] UCL: Conybeare to Greenough, 24 January 1823, Add. 7918, 459; Copy letter, Greenough to Conybeare, 26 January 1823, Add. 7918, 460. Warburton to Greenough, 14 December 1824, Add. 7918, 1697 enclosing a fragment from a letter from Conybeare, 11 December 1824. Draft of Greenough’s response, Add. 7918, 1699.

[80] UCL: Copy of letter, Greenough to Conybeare [December 1824/January 1825?], Add. 7918, 463a.

[81] This natural arrangement was not in itself an invention of Smith. Whitehurst (1786, p 204-5), had suggested that a geological museum could be arranged along these lines in order to display the nature and productions of strata as they are found in the field. He makes no particular mention of fossils or their utility, however.

[82] UCL: Conybeare to Greenough, 28 June 1811, Add. 7918,  434.

[83] GSL: Geological Map Revision Committee details the process of completing the 1865 map.

[84] Happy farmer, description of John Phillips in 1828 (Knell 2000, p. 167); plain farmer-looking man, description of  John Eddowes Bowman, 1836: ‘a plain farmer-looking man’ (Edmonds & Beardmore 1955, p. 104).

[85] UCL: Conybeare to Greenough, 21 June 1811, Add. 7918, 433.

Source: Simon Knell: The road to Smith: how the Geological Society came to possess English geology, in Cherry L.E. Lewis and Simon J. Knell (eds). The Making of the Geological Society of London, Special Publication 317 (London, Geological Society, 2009).